With Violent Crime Down in Waterloo, Budget Battle Over Police Funding Could Follow
Update On Saturday, February 22, 2014: Waterloo City Council Member Steve Schmitt stated on Saturday that council members do not want to make any layoffs or cuts from the Violent Crime Apprehension Unit in Waterloo but that any cuts to police or fire departments in the city come from attrition or, possibly, current unfilled positions within the department.
WATERLOO, Iowa - Regardless of political hue on the role of taxing and public services, a point of pride in Waterloo centers on a welcome trend of late.
"Our overall crime rate is down 19%," said Mayor Buck Clark, a longtime Waterloo police officer before first being elected in 2009. "Our crime rate is going down. Our fire response time is very good."
Four years ago, before Clark was even in office, the Waterloo City Council approved the decision to receive a federal grant to fund a five-officer unit called the Violent Crime Apprehension Team.
Captain Tim Pillack, of the Waterloo Police Department, wrote the grant for the funding.
"We received grant money from the federal COPS grant to get money to be able to pay for the first three years' salary of the officers and the fourth year, the city picked up the tab for that," said Pillack. "During that time, they've been able to concentrate on the violent crime areas in the city of Waterloo, they've made numerous arrests involving gang members, weapons and drugs."
Yet as the city budget is up for review, will the City Council pay the estimated $500,000 in salary and benefits for these five officers who specialize in tracking violent crime?
Council member Steve Schmitt says there are "four, maybe five" on the seven-member council who may not pay for it.
(Note on the previous two paragraphs: On Saturday, Schmitt and others on the council clarified that they would be open to considering cuts to police and fire departments that are not specific to the VCAT unit of Waterloo Police. For example, not filling the position of a retiring police officer.)
"From a budgetary standpoint, something has got to give and, unfortunately, public safety is 75-80% of the budget," said Schmitt on Friday at his downtown Waterloo office. "We just keep thinking taxpayers are this well that continues to produce money and we can't keep doing that."
Clark narrowly defeated Schmitt for the mayor's office in 2009 and 2013, by fewer than 100 votes in each election.
When asked on running on a campaign to support public safety, Schmitt admitted that but added, "the oath I took was to the taxpayers and, ultimately, what I'm concerned about".
Clark does not have a vote but is not shy about offering an opinion on keeping police funding at current levels.
"I'm particularly not willing to reduce our police and fire when our crime rate is going in the right direction," said Clark. "I'm not willing to jeopardize that in regards to our staffing."
Both Clark and Schmitt insist public support would be on their respective position:
Clark: "I think that, overall, if you polled the whole works, (the citizens) would say 'we are willing to kick in a few extra bucks to maintain that service'."
Schmitt: "We've got a lot of low-income, moderate-income, retired people in Waterloo and I hear that, year after year, (the tax burden) is becoming more of a strain on them."
A public hearing in Waterloo is set for March 3.