Officials defend Rybak public safety package as ‘significant’ increase

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The “nearly $200 million” package of public safety initiatives Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak heralded last week in his 2007 budget message was designed to assuage concerns over rising crime levels in the city. And, while that figure sounds impressive, a closer look reveals what appears to be a more modest plan.

According to Tara Barenok, the mayor’s director of budget information and coordination, the public safety package actually totals about $191.5 million and includes $8 million in new anti-crime funding. That’s an increase of 4.5 percent over 2006 spending, a figure that will barely keep pace with inflation, which stood at 4.15 percent in July.

The public safety package includes $3.4 million for 43 additional police officers and $1 million for surveillance cameras. The remainder of the $4.6 million will be divided between the Safe Routes to School program ($100,000), domestic violence prevention ($100,000), homelessness outreach work ($100,000), 911 computer dispatch training ($100,000), youth violence programs ($200,000), graffiti remediation ($100,000), demolition of vacant buildings ($500,000) and new firefighters ($200,000). An additional $2.1 million of the increase is dedicated to inflationary wage and benefit hikes.

So actual new public safety program spending is $5.9 million, or a 3.3 percent over current levels.

City officials argue that, given the financial constraints under which the city has been operating in recent years, any increase in public safety spending is significant.

“It’s a miracle,” said Rybak spokesman Jeremy Hanson. “It’s still 43 cops and a million dollars in technology. And just maintaining the size of public safety is a significant amount of growth.”

City Council Member Paul Ostrow, who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee, also sees reasons to celebrate. Adding a dozen firefighters to allow the Fire Department to achieve the “mandatory standard of coverage” throughout the city is a “critical” step, he said.

“We need to push as hard as possible on the budget,” he added. “I continue to believe that the number of sworn officers we need in the city of Minneapolis exceeds even the number that the mayor’s budget proposes.”

The budget is “consistent with the council’s priorities,” he added, but cautioned that “our margin for future years is very, very narrow at this point.”

Council Member Betsy Hodges called the proposed budget increase “enormous,” noting that, “There’s nothing else getting that level of increase.”

And like her colleague Ostrow, Hodges has some concerns about the city’s contingency funds, but added, “I don’t think we’re on the brink of disaster.”

Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Lt. Greg Reinhardt declined to comment on the budget figures, noting that “the business plan of the budget has not been completed.”

The City Council will began debating the budget in September and finalize the spending plan in December.

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