Police Chief Paul Ferreira said one of the most pressing priorities and toughest challenges the Hawaii Police Department faces is seeking additional officer positions and recruiting to fill existing officer vacancies.
In a conversation last month with the Tribune-Herald, the Big Island’s top cop acknowledged the need for more officers. The preliminary fiscal year 2018-19 budget proposal of $515.7 million submitted March 1 to the County Council by Mayor Harry Kim doesn’t provide additional uniformed personnel, however.
If approved as is for police funding, the budget will provide the department $67,453,170 for July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. Of that money, $65,764,820 will come from the county’s general fund, financing 733 officer and civilian positions. That number is about $2 million above the current fiscal year’s police budget of $65,529.60. The fiscal year 2016-17 budget was $62,288,018.46.
“We’ve been operating for years with a status quo budget. People can promise us, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you 60 more officers,’ but somebody’s gotta pay for it,” Ferreira said. “Our staffing hasn’t increased; right now we’re at 450 sworn (officers). But at the end of 2017, we were 34 officers short. We had 34 vacancies. Right now, we have a recruit class in session with 20 officers, and we have another hire we’re looking forward to in April that we’re going to pick up another eight to 10 to make up the deficit. But it takes us nine months from the time someone is hired until the time they hit the streets. That’s how long the training is.
“And, in this day and age, one of the challenges we’re facing is, especially this year, as the economy gets better, nobody wants to be a police officer. They’d rather be in construction or other jobs that pay just as much and don’t have the challenges that being an officer does. So when the economy gets good, recruitment falls. When the private sector economy is good, the public sector suffers.”
The budget proposal doesn’t provide seven supervisory positions requested by police, nor does it fund five additional officers each for the growing Puna and Ka‘u districts, which comes out to an additional patrol officer per watch.
“The Police Department’s goal to protect life and property and serve the community cannot fully be met” without the requested personnel increases, states the mayor’s budget message to the Hawaii County Council at the beginning of the budget document.
“I’ll put it this way. I get a lot of hard meetings that you got to say ‘no’ or ‘cannot’ for whatever reason,” Kim said. “You can call every department head and they all got the same instructions. It would be foolhardy for me as mayor for me to determine what is priority within your department. … But the spending message to all is there will be no increase of any kind for any department, and you will have to cut X amount from your department. … After the second cut was made, we’re still $7 million short. … The point of emphasis here is, all the review by us is a general overview, but the specific cuts (are) made by the department heads themselves, in this case the police chief.”
Kim said his orders to department heads to trim from what started as a status quo budget are motivated largely by forces beyond his control.
Salaries and benefits to employees, mostly negotiated at the state level, are adding $12.7 million to be shouldered by taxpayers. County contributions to the employee pension plan total $4.4 million, with other post-retirement benefits adding an additional $5.9 million. An additional $1.5 million in raises recently were awarded to top officials by the Salary Commission. Debt payments by the county will total $49 million.
The mayor added he knows the problems faced by Puna and Ka‘u and is not unsympathetic to the plight of rural district residents.
“Ka‘u is one of the fastest growing districts on the island; the fastest is Puna,” Kim said. “Ka‘u is growing because of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates and that area becoming the bedroom community of Kona, which is very surprising to people. When you tell them ‘no’ and you tell them why — and the responsibility is mine — you’re the one that’s saying ‘no,’ not the chief of police. Because I made a policy (of) no increase in personnel. And it’s not easy. But that’s the blanket that went to every district, not just Ka‘u.”
The preliminary budget proposal is in the hands of the County Council, which has departmental reviews scheduled for April 17-19. Department heads, including the police chief, will have another opportunity at that point to highlight their priorities.
“I know we need officers in the field, but one of our challenges is, we lack field supervisors, sergeants in the field. That has been identified,” Ferreira said. “One of our priorities in this budget cycle is looking for more sergeants, looking for patrol supervisors. Additionally, we’re asking for patrol officers for Puna and Ka‘u. Whether that’s going to come to life, I don’t know. People ask, ‘Well, just give us one more officer.’ Giving you one more officer is not going to make any difference. It takes five more officers in the district to make sure that we have one covering each shift because of days off and vacations.
“… So when we’re asking for more officers for Ka‘u or for Puna, we ask in increments of five. On the other hand, when we ask for a sergeant out there, that’s another body on the watch, we’re increasing numbers out there. Because some of our shifts have no supervisors in some of the smaller districts — Ka‘u, North Hilo, Hamakua, North Kohala. So by adding another sergeant, we’re adding another body on the watch. It’s a supervisory position but it’s another officer on the road.”
The mayor’s final proposed budget will be released by May 5. Once amended and passed by the council, it goes into effect July 1.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.