A temporary fix to police budget woes last spring could make this year's budget process a major headache if the economic situation does not improve.




The city asked both the police and fire departments to cut 5 percent from their budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2007. With a budget of approximately $5 million, each department had to eliminate between $250,000 and $300,000. To make the cut, the police chose to delay hiring additional staff until January.




"The police department did not completely deal with the requested cut last year," said city of Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg. "Deferring hires was a short-term one-year solution, but they'll have to deal with that this year."




In the next fiscal year, the police department will have to pay a full year of salaries and benefits for new hires rather than just the 6 months they paid this year.




"When I go into my budget this year, there's obviously going to be an issue," said Police Chief Terry Holderness. "If I'm fully staffed, I can't do that again."




The original proposal last spring called for promoting four officers to corporals, a post halfway between officer and sergeant, and hiring an additional officer and a lieutenant.




The budget was created before Holderness was officially named chief, but he was involved in the process.




Because many senior patrol officers were unwilling to trade good shifts for higher-paid corporal positions, the restructuring was scrapped, which saved some money, Holderness said. Instead, one officer was promoted to sergeant and a lieutenant was recently hired. The other officer position remains open.




Holderness said he is comfortable with a less-than-full staff if it means more funding for training.




The entire training budget is less than the cost of one staff member.




"In a tough budget time, I'd rather have 29 officers who are properly equipped and trained than 30 that aren't," he said.




The full impact of the cuts won't be known until March or April, when more of this fiscal year has passed, said City Administrator Martha Bennett who reviews department budget requests.




So far, expenditures are outpacing revenue, she said, but it is not clear whether that is a temporary or a permanent problem, since revenue sources such as the hotel/motel tax and construction fees are subject to seasonal fluctuations in the larger economy.




"Essentially (the police) were deferring their cut until this year," she said. "If the revenue situation continues, than they'll have to face some real cuts, and if it starts to look better, then they made the right decision by keeping their capacity."




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