Walla Walla crime prevention volunteers decry proposed cut

They say the city should find other places to save money.

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WALLA WALLA -- Crime prevention volunteers spoke out Wednesday against the proposed 2011-2012 budget, which threatens to completely cut crime prevention programs for the Police Department, as well as other police support staff.

"It is appalling to our group that a reaction to the budget crunch might reduce the program that helps create the strong bonds in our community," crime prevention volunteer David Fetterman said. And at the Wednesday night City Council meeting, he went on to criticize how staff had touted that they would not reduce the number of "boots" (patrol officers) on the streets.

"I think we missed something. The biggest number of boots on the ground is the citizens. And eliminating the link between the police and the citizens is something that I think we don't want," Fetterman added.

Testimony on the budget was also heard from Commitment to Community, the Community Center for Youth and the Walla Walla Area Resource Conservation Committee, as well as various city department heads. But the largest group in the audience was nearly a dozen crime prevention volunteers, who criticized the city for not finding others ways to cut expenses instead.

Among those crime prevention volunteers was accountant Sharon Bright, who carried with her a copy of the proposed budget, a document she said she has spent too much time reading lately.

"I started looking at this and said 'where can you cut?'" Bright said, noting that she found several areas where she felt staff could make key cuts. And she also noted the single largest users of the general fund budget are salaries and benefits.

According to a staff report, 70 percent of the general fund budget is reserved for salaries and benefits. In addition, one of the largest cost increases in next year's budget will be in benefits paid to employees.

But Bright and other crime prevention volunteers have expressed concerns that the city's benefits package is "luxurious" and costing millions that could be used elsewhere.

Bright said that the cost of health benefits for city employees is roughly $4.5 million, while Pasco pays closer to $3 million. "They have roughly the same amount of employees as our city, but as far as I can tell they are doing a lot better job managing their money than we are," Bright said.

Recently, staff said the difference in costs between Walla Walla and Pasco is due to the different sources of coverage for insurance.

But Bright noted that regardless of the source of coverage, she felt having employees pay just $76 for full family coverage of medical, dental and vision with no deductible was too little. And she also noted that in addition to nine paid holidays, 12 days sick leave and 12 days vacation, city employees also get five personal holidays per year.

"The employees need to kick in a bigger portion of it ... And I think they need to reduce the paid holidays per year. I think five extra days per year is a bit much," she said.

The City Council's next public hearing on the 2011-2012 biennial budget will be Dec. 1. at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 15. N. Third Ave.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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