The tiny East Texas town of Alto made national headlines this summer when it furloughed its five-man police department in an effort to save money in this ailing economy.
But Alto is hardly the only Texas community struggling to fund public safety amid falling tax revenues and shrinking state and federal aid. Most cities aren't taking the drastic measures Alto did, but they're finding other ways to scale back costs, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
"There definitely are cutbacks," he said. "There's furloughs and layoffs in public safety to some degree. And we're also seeing a lot of cities looking to consolidate public safety functions."
City officials in Alto, population 1,100, seem to have tired of the attention to their budget crisis, after stories on CBS News and in The Wall Street Journal, and an attempted robbery at the local bank. Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell, who is now responsible for law enforcement in Alto, didn't respond to calls requesting comment. A call to the city offices on Wednesday was answered by a woman who identified herself only as the "city secretary" and adamantly declined to comment about the situation, citing legal advice.
But Sandlin said it's not that rare for small towns to close their police departments. "It's not unheard of, but it's not something a lot of cities are going to," he said. Cities aren't obligated to have police departments, he said. Sometimes officials shut them down to save money, and often they choose to contract with another local public safety agency to consolidate services, he said. Nearby cities have arranged to share policing responsibilities in some instances, and in others cities sign an agreement with the county government that allows the local sheriff to take over both jurisdictions.
In Texas, the largest city to start on the path to consolidating police and sheriffs departments has been El Paso. County Judge Veronica Escobar said she and other local officials started talks about combining services even before the economy tanked, as early as 2007. "We’re so isolated from the rest of Texas that in many ways the environment was ripe," she said. The city and county recently combined their information technology departments, which immediately saved the county $2.5 million and will save another $250,000 a month going forward. Next on the consolidation list are the police and sheriff's operations.
The task is not as simple as putting all the officers in one big station, though, Escobar said. Each agency has its own employee union, its own pension plan, its own training academy and other unique processes. And, she said, there are long-lasting scars among officers in both departments from previous failed merger attempts.
"There's always a lot of apprehension about merging departments, because each entity is very protective of itself," she said.
It's also unclear just how much money the local governments will save with consolidation. It might not be a huge amount, Escobar said, but it will save one entity from bearing all the cost of providing public safety for the region's burgeoning population. "Even if we were to just stop the increase in our budget, that would be a savings," she said.
Neither the El Paso City Council nor the El Paso County Commissioners Court has signed onto a plan to consolidate law enforcement, but they are marching ahead, step by step. So far, the few consolidation efforts in place haven't produced a lot of savings, said police department spokesman Darrel Petry. The department hasn't seen layoffs or furloughs, but when officers leave or retire, their positions have gone unfilled.
"We’ve just restructured our resources, and we are not seeing as much of a proactive approach to policing as have had in the past," Petry said.
El Paso city budget talks are underway now, Petry said, and the department is hoping to reverse the recent trend and get money to hire and train new officers. Despite the tight budget, crime in El Paso — just across the border from violence-ridden Juarez — has consistently fallen in recent years. Combining the two agencies, he said, wouldn't be easy, but it has been done in other large cities across the country. "Budgetary constraints across all municipalities has forced people to pause at some of those strategies," Petry said.
But in small, rural Texas towns like Alto, the local sheriffs are often already overburdened with tiny budgets, huge swaths of land to patrol and few deputies. If a city can't afford to provide basic public safety for its taxpayers, said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, perhaps there are even bigger questions to answer.
"Isn’t one of the moral duties you have to provide law enforcement services to your cities?" he asked. "Maybe you should just consider disbanding the city altogether."