OKC’s September special election is a big moment for public safety spending

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On July 1, the first day of the City of Oklahoma City’s new fiscal year, fire department officials removed Engine 51 from service at downtown’s Fire Station 1, relocating 15 firefighters to stations across the city.

Weeks earlier, after months of dwindling sales tax collections due in part to a reduced sales tax base as residents’ online shopping habits increased, the Oklahoma City Council passed a $1.38 billion budget for the 2018 fiscal year with slight cuts. The fire department, which was forced to cut spending six months earlier in mid-year budget cuts, was forced to remove its second engine from a station serving an ever-growing downtown community.

“We are in need of Engine 51 more now than ever with all the downtown development,” Scott VanHorn, International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 157 president, told Oklahoma Gazette from inside the union’s downtown headquarters. “Since the first of this year, they have been what we call ‘browning out’ fire trucks. Sometimes the brush rigs. Sometimes the rescue ladders. We desperately need for that to cease. We need all of our trucks in service.”

Oklahoma City, like many other Oklahoma cities, relies heavily on sales tax dollars as a source of revenue for its general fund, which acts as a catchall fund for day-to-day city operations. Public safety, which also includes the police department, makes up 64.6 percent of the general fund. Diminishing sales tax revenue has resulted in city hiring freezes, which impacted public safety greatly in recent years.

A proposal before voters on Sept. 12 stands to reverse those hiring freezes.

Not alone

“For a few years, we’ve known we were significantly understaffed,” said Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 123 vice president Mark Nelson.

An analysis ordered by the council on police department staffing suggested the city maintain at least 1,300 officers. Currently, the city has approved 1,105 police positions but employs between 1,070 and 1,075 officers, Nelson said.

“We are anywhere from 200 to 230 officers below what the department says we need in order to effectively police the city,” he said. “Council had made it a priority to fund positions. … Then the revenue started declining and those positions were not funded.”

Read the rest of the story at okgazette.com.