Mobile is either spending more than $26 million to offer police and fire services inside a three-mile radius outside the city limits, or it’s spending nearly $14 million, depending upon who you ask.
Those differences in methodology were discussed at length during a two-and-a-half hour Mobile City Council ad-hoc committee discussion on the merits of an ordinance created to remove services from the city’s police jurisdiction. Ultimately, the committee adjourned without making a recommendation on Tuesday evening, but Chairwoman Bess Rich told visitors that another meeting would be scheduled before the proposed ordinance was slated to re-appear on the council’s agenda on Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Members of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration have said the city spends $26.5 million in resources in the jurisdiction and only receives revenue — through half-priced business license fees and sales taxes — of about $12.2 million annually. To arrive at the number, Wesch told councilors he analyzed the duration of service calls in the jurisdiction, which makes up about 19 percent of all call duration throughout the city and applied that percentage to the police and fire budget, as well as a number of support services, including mayor and city council overhead, as well as a number of other cost centers, including retiree insurance, workers compensation, information technology and more.
County Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen said she disagreed with the methodology used by Wesch. In her own cost analysis, Foster-Allen said she used the percentage of service calls in the area, which made up 11.8 percent of total calls, to help determine the city spends $13.9 million in the area. She also added a limited amount of support services, including costs for only public safety administration and emergency management.
“There’s a difference in support costs,” she said. “If you pull back the police jurisdiction, you have to look at what costs would go away. Some costs would not result in a savings if the police jurisdiction was pulled back.”
Wesch told councilors he used call duration in his analysis because it can take patrolmen longer to get to calls in the jurisdiction than it would within the city limits. As for the addition of support services, Wesch compared the scenario hypothetically to two small cities who share a police force. Each city pays for an officer each and each community shares the responsibility of paying for a police chief. In the hypothetical, each city pays for one officer and half of the salary for the police chief, who helps administer the service, he said.
Wesch defended the methodology further by explaining it was validated by auditors at Smith Dukes, LLC. and argued it was more conservative than the methodology approved by a Mobile County Circuit Court judge and affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court in a 2002 case involving the city’s police jurisdiction.
Wesch and Executive Director of Public Safety James Barber both argued that pulling services from the jurisdiction wouldn’t result in a large cash savings, but would allow the city to re-allocate resources in the form of 44 officers into the city limits.
The differences in methodology resulted in drastic disparities between the two analyses when comparing revenues and expenses in the jurisdiction. While Wesch’s analysis showed the city spends about $14 million more for the services than it takes in through business license and sales tax revenue, Foster-Allen’s analysis shows the city spends about $1.6 million more than it takes in.
As currently written the ordinance would repeal business license fees collected by the city in the police jurisdiction, but would not repeal the sales tax currently collected. Councilors debated the legality of that, with Councilman Fred Richardson telling his colleagues a state attorney general’s opinion says it’s illegal.
Councilman Joel Daves, the sponsor of the ordinance, said he would vote in favor of any amendment brought by colleagues to repeal sales taxes collected in the area.
Despite this offer, jurisdiction residents argued that they pay city sales taxes regardless of whether they’re collected or not. Freddie Wheeler said he and his wife shop at many of the stores along the commercial corridor on Schillinger Road, which were annexed by the city in the early 2000s.
“You have that penny sales tax,” he said. “When you say citizens in West Mobile don’t participate, you’re putting that wall up yourselves.”
Roger Daivs, who lives in the unannexed portion of Theodore made the same argument. He told committee members that some 652 residents voted when the city annexed mostly businesses in the area.
“There’s nowhere in south Mobile County where we can go shopping or see a movie without paying your taxes,” he said. “When you think about eliminating services … we are just as good as you. We pay your taxes.”
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