HPD, libraries could end up on budget chopping block

March 4, 2011 4:41:06 PM PST
Public safety campaigns are a big part of the Houston Police Department's community policing philosophy. But some of these programs could be on the chopping block as the police chief could be forced to make cuts. Everything, he says, is on the table. Police officers from the city's South Central Patrol Division routinely inspect convenience stores to make sure they're in compliance with the city's ordinance. It's part of Houston's ongoing March on Crime public safety campaign.

"It's much better if we can prevent a crime from happening, use these crime prevention techniques versus having to respond to a crime. It's much safer," said HPD Sgt. Michael Hill.

But its future may be in jeopardy. With a looming 5 percent cut to HPD's operating budget, the mayor told all department directors that nothing is sacred.

"I've been warning them that we couldn't just prune the branches, that we'd have to cut off big limbs," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

Both Mayor Parker and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland promised that core services -- such as investigating crimes, responding to citizen calls and traffic enforcement -- will continue.

So here's what's at stake: Since 95 percent of the budget goes towards personnel, civilian layoffs are not out of the question. Crime prevention and public safety campaigns that involve community partnerships are also at risk, as are millions of more dollars in police overtime.

"It's not a good scenario. I think it's time the mayor, the council, everyone look at some kind of public safety funding mechanism that will sustain the police and fire department," said Gary Blankinship of the Houston Police Officers Union.

Yet despite all the uncertainty the convenience store inspections continued today. But the question now is for how much longer?

Libraries also bearing brunt of deep budget cuts

Houston's public library system is one of 13 city departments forced to make that 27 percent cut to its budget. Patrons are not happy about it, especially since more people are using their computers to look for jobs.

For Miriam Alvarez, who does a lot of work on the computer, the neighborhood public library has become her home away from home.

"I don't have internet access. I'm trying to cut down on my expenses," said Alvarez.

Problem is, so is the city of Houston. The city's libraries will bear the brunt of it, slashing its overall operating budget by 27 percent even though library visits are up by 13 percent.

"That same cut may mean that we close libraries on a rotating basis," said Mayor Parker.

What's more, Houston's 42 city libraries have fallen victim to the budget axe before. Last year, the library system was forced to cut its budget by $2.2 million and reduce its service hours from 70 to 51 hours per week. Library materials were also downsized by 6 percent.

"These are things that we need. I'm not sure what other areas could be cut, you know, so that these wouldn't have to be. But I think it's going to be painful for Houston," said library patron Karen Kane.

Painful for Houston and the patrons like Miriam Alvarez who treats her neighborhood library as a necessity, not a luxury.

Mayor Parker issues her budget proposal in May, so Chief McClelland and all the other department directors don't have much time to decide how they are going to make those cuts.