The city is spending tens of millions of dollars more than it receives from an area just outside the city limits, known as the police jurisdiction (PJ), according to numbers provided by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration, and now some City Council members want to revisit the idea of reducing its size to possibly save money.
The city is legally obligated to track these numbers and spend at least as much as it takes in through business license fees in this three-mile radius each year, but as councilors mull a decision on whether to allow groups of West Mobile residents to vote on joining the city, some have expressed concerns over the amount of taxpayer money already piercing through the city’s borders.
According to reports compiled by Paul Wesch, executive director of finance and acting chief of staff, the city spends between $26 million and $27 million each year on a population of around 70,000 residents living just outside the city. The majority of these expenses come from police protection, which accounted for $17.3 million of this total, according to estimates from fiscal year 2018.
The city spent some $9 million on fire coverage in that same fiscal year, but Wesch admitted that amount would go down since administration officials have stopped providing emergency medical services to much of the area.
“We will realize some reduction,” Wesch said. “There will be some increase in public safety costs, but there will still be a big gap between what is spent and what we take in.”
The total for the amount of police and fire service in the police jurisdiction for fiscal year 2018 was $26.6 million, according to the reports. The city took in just over $12 million in revenue from taxes and business license fees that year. State law only requires a city to provide services equal to the amount taken in through business license fees. In fiscal year 2018 that would have been $2.1 million.
Wesch said he compiles these reports each year and submits them to the state.
“When all the numbers are in from a year, we prepare a report,” he said. “We file it toward the end of the year or in January. We have not filed a report for fiscal year 2019.”
The methodology used in creating the reports is to estimate a portion of the services provided in the police jurisdiction by the percentage of police and fire calls in the area for a given year, Wesch wrote. For the fiscal year 2018 report the percentage of response in the jurisdiction was about 19 percent. For fiscal year 2017, it was about 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
In an email to Council President Levon Manzie, Wesch provided the reports, but also explained other expenses were not included because the reports are just to show compliance with state law.
“Since the purpose of the reports is to demonstrate compliance and since compliance has been more than demonstrated in all years by reference solely to the general fund, the expense categories do not include capital outlays, such as the costs of constructing fire stations or of purchasing police vehicles,” Wesch wrote. “Were capital outlays to be considered, the expenses charged to the police jurisdiction would be higher than presented.”
Spurred by Manzie, councilors’ views on reducing the amount spent in the police jurisdiction might be beginning to shift. In 2016, a majority of the Mobile City Council voted to reduce the police jurisdiction from three miles outside the city down to 1.5 miles after Mayor Stimpson informed them how much was being spent there. However, a supermajority of five councilors was needed for the item to pass. At the time, councilmen Manzie, C.J. Small and Fred Richardson voted against the reduction, so it failed.
Richardson recently defended killing the attempt to reduce the PJ, stating he felt it was being pushed in an attempt to spur annexation. While removing EMS from those areas seems to have been a catalyst for residents’ enthusiasm for annexation, the proposal to remove the outer band of the jurisdiction would not have impacted annexation because, by law, annexed areas have to share a common border with the city.
Now, as Richardson and Small openly oppose allowing a vote on annexation, and Manzie sits as the council’s lone undecided member, the discussion of reducing the amount spent in the PJ has taken center stage. Manzie says he wants to see less spent in the PJ and admits reducing its size is now an option, although he added he is not in favor of an “abrupt approach.”
“It ought to be gradual,” he said. “It ought to be phased in. We want to work with other government representatives to make sure this occurs over a two-year period. We don’t want to pull the rug out from underneath them.”
In 2016, the city struck a deal with the county that would’ve delayed implementation of the rollback to the first part of 2017. However, councilors voted it down.
Now, however, Manzie said he supports legislation to change the amount spent in the jurisdiction whether annexation is approved or not.
Richardson said he supports spending less in the jurisdiction as well. He said the city spending in excess of what is legally required is a “self-imposed burden.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich still supports changes in the way the city manages its police jurisdiction, but she doesn’t want this discussion to impact the ongoing annexation debate.
“We’re looking at two separate subjects,” she said. “I hope we’re not binding the two together.”
Rich also strongly supports allowing residents in three areas of West Mobile to vote on whether or not to join the city. The areas being discussed include “economic engines,” she said.
Councilman Joel Daves also still supports better management of the police jurisdiction. He and Rich were two of the four members who voted to approve the rollback in 2016.
“It makes no sense for the citizens of Mobile to expend funds they don’t recoup in the police jurisdiction,” he said.
At the same time, Daves favors a more gradual withdraw from the jurisdiction, like Manzie.
“It has to be an orderly transition between city services and whatever the replacement services are,” he said. “We need to end it, but we need to end it in a fair way.”
Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl said the commission is not focused on the issue because it hasn’t been discussed yet.
“We’re prepared to do what we have to do to protect the people that we represent, and obviously the largest part of the area [targeted for annexation] is in my district,” Carl said. “The police service is the big issue … I know Sheriff [Sam] Cochran has already put some numbers together on what he would need for that coverage, though I haven’t seen them.”
Commissioner Connie Hudson said the city had a “moral imperative” to roll back services within a timeframe that doesn’t negatively impact safety.
“Whether that’s a good idea, I won’t comment, but most cities are looking to expand and grow and that’s part of the process of a thriving city moving forward, but if they choose to pull services back they just need to do it in coordination in working with the county, with the citizens out there and in a timeframe that doesn’t jeopardize safety,” Hudson said.
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