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City officials have repeatedly budgeted enough money to pay for at least 1,100 officers in the Albuquerque Police Department, something Mayor Tim Keller wants to do again in the coming fiscal year.
But even Police Chief Harold Medina is acknowledging that number is likely unrealistic.
APD – which has struggled to hire enough to make up for retirements and other departures – has 878 sworn officers as of this week, according to an APD presentation during Thursday’s City Council budget hearing.
The fiscal year 2023 budget Keller has proposed to the council would cover 1,100 officers out of the city’s general fund and 40 more with grant money.
However, APD estimates that it will finish FY 2023 with just 982 officers, Medina said.
Since budgeted officer positions are worth $105,000 apiece, that means millions of dollars in unspent salaries could accrue.
But Medina said APD intends to use some of the money to hire more police service aides.
“We know that’s the best pipeline for us to add officers to this department,” Medina told the council. “The vast majority of our police service aides become officers.”
The department aims to have 96 PSAs by the end of next year. It has 39 today, according to the presentation.
The officer salary savings also will provide APD some flexibility to hire civilians for certain tasks that do not require a sworn officer – such as scouring social media accounts for evidence – something the department is doing with more regularity.
“It’s going to be very difficult for us to get to 1,100 (officers),” Medina said in an interview. “But we want to start laying the groundwork with extra PSAs and helping find proper support for our officers.”
But the unspent officer salary money will not go exclusively to other forms of manpower.
City finance officials said Keller’s 2023 plan assumes using about $7.2 million in budgeted officer salaries for non-personnel operating costs. Should the city somehow exceed hiring expectations, it would have to find another way to pay those operating expenses.
City Councilor Dan Lewis pushed APD for clarity on that budgeting strategy during Thursday’s meeting.
“I think it’s good for us to understand this is not a budget that (actually) funds 1,100 police officers,” he said.
Keller’s 2023 budget proposal – which is now winding through the council’s review and amendment process – is not necessarily unusual, as the city has consistently set aside money for more officers than the number it actually employs.
With the 2022 budget, Medina said that financial cushion helped cover a union-negotiated 8% officer pay increase that took effect in January and was not otherwise funded.
But Lewis said he wanted more detail about how APD – which has hundreds fewer officers than the present year’s budget assumed – has used all of those 2022 savings before the council approves a similar budget for FY 2023.
“We’re going to give you (money for) 1,100 officers this year; we’re going to fund (that) just like we did last year. We’re continuing to do that, but I think at the very least what this council is going to need and want is a very specific breakdown of where those salary savings went because we didn’t hire those officers,” he said.
Those questions have emerged in the past.
Even prior to Lewis’ current tenure on the council, Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton had begun pursuing additional information about how APD and the mayoral administration more generally apply the salary savings that accrue each year, since the moves do not always require City Council or public vetting. In 2021, Davis and Benton introduced legislation that would have meant more council oversight. They ultimately withdrew it with the understanding the Keller administration would give the legislative body regular money-movement reports.
Davis said in Thursday’s meeting that the council had yet to receive any such reports.
But he said he was pleased at APD’s forthrightness during this year’s budget process.
“We’re being more transparent with the public about what we’re trying to do (by saying) ‘We want to get (1,100 officers). We’re not there yet. Here’s how we intend upfront to use the savings,’” Davis said during the hearing. “I appreciate that because in the old days we knew there were $20-$30 million dollars in there of money we weren’t going to get to (spending on planned staffing), and it really was a black hole.”
Thursday was the first of three public hearings the council is holding on the FY 2023 budget. Keller’s proposal totals $1.4 billion – including $841.8 million in general fund spending – but the council can make changes before approving the final version.