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Breaking down the budget: A note from City Manager Mark Scott

The City has received a number of questions lately asking why the Indio Police Department budget is so large, comprising 36.7% of the City’s General Fund operating budget. (It is about 23% of the total budget for all funds.) These community members are asking if some portion of that funding might better be spent on parks, recreation, educational or social service programs? It is a fair question and one worth answering. The City would love to have additional funding for those purposes.

The Indio Police Department, despite what may seem like a large budget, is actually one of the lesser funded “full service” departments in the State. In a 2015 survey, Indio had the very lowest ratio of police officers per capita (number of employees per 1,000 population). Five years later, we have increased our staffing a bit, but remain at or near the bottom of the survey. This is a bit worrisome for us, but with our low crime rate, we seem to do reasonably well. Other full service Police agencies in our region include:

Palm Springs 1.65 ratio
Riverside 1.20
San Bernardino 1.02
Cathedral City 0.95
Indio 0.89

In comparing a Police or Fire Department to other City functions, it should be remembered that Police and Fire Departments are 24/7 emergency response agencies. They have to staff to cover 168 hours every workweek. Other functions cover 40-hour work weeks. So right away, every Police or Fire Department will take up a great portion of any City’s budget. 9-1-1 calls come in all hours of the day.

So with that understanding, how does a City decide how much is enough — or too much? We start by doing our best to spend our money hiring the right people. It starts with the Chief and extends throughout the organization. We pay appropriately to get the right police officers with the right training. We are competitive, but do not overpay.

We make sure the Department operates on modern, community-based Policing standards. Our policies are all posted online and frequently touted by others as being a model of what a Police agency in 2020 should be. The Indio Police Department was identified by the Obama Administration in May of 2016 as one of 15 agencies that represent models of 21st Century policing. We do not claim to be perfect, and continual improvement is a value. But we feel confident that our policies are based on solid, community-based principles.

Indio is not a wealthy community. Overall, for all City functions, we have only 274 employees to serve a population of nearly 100,000 in 33 square miles. Looking at “total city employees per capita,” again we are near the bottom of any survey. This is not a surprise; this is what we can afford. We are proud to be doing a good job with minimal staffing. We work out of very modest buildings and do our best to serve the community.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all businesses and governments are suffering from major reductions in revenue. In the proposed city budget for Fiscal Year 2021, we are hoping to offset part of our shortfall by saving several million dollars during the course of the year. We have stopped filling all but the most critical vacant positions as a result, including four currently vacant police officer positions. We are balancing our budget using Emergency Reserves and transferring some Measure X Sales Tax revenues we had hoped would be spent instead on needed capital improvements, including local street repairs and parks. We all hope the economy comes back later in the year, and that we can restore those transferred funds over time.

In response to calls for more spending on recreation, education and social services, we would love to have that capacity. We hope a growing Indio economy may one day make that very much more a reality. It should be understood that cities in California (other than the largest one) generally do not provide much in the way of health, education or social service programming.

—Not every city provides libraries. We have a County-operated library in Indio. (The City owns the building.)
—Not every City provides Fire Services. Indio contracts with CALFire. (Again, the City owns the buildings and equipment.)

—Not every city provides paramedic services. They are often provided by private companies. Indio does provide paramedic service through the CALFire contract.

—Not every city provides Park and Recreation services. We do not have a Recreation Department in Indio. East Valley taxpayers pay an assessment on their property tax bill to the Desert Recreation District which operates the Pawley Pool complex in Jackson St. and the very popular community center on Clinton. The City owns and maintains many Indio parks, but we do not staff the parks or provide on-site programming.

We own the Municipal Golf Course, which is operated by contract. We also own and program the Teen Center and Senior Center. The combined budget for the Teen and Senior Centers is roughly $2 million per year, and will receive an additional $140,000 this year via Community Development Block Grant funding. Various recreation, health and social services are offered by the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, the Desert Health District, the School Districts and local religious institutions. The Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy maintains some of the great trails we enjoy in the East Valley.

The City Council has established the goal of upgrading our park facilities. In particular, the City is prioritizing upgrades to Miles Avenue and Dr. Carreon Parks. We are also exploring options to develop the long-desired Sports Park facility west of Jackson, south of Avenue 44. The dramatic revenue reductions caused by the COVID-19 crisis has forced the City to seek private financing or grant funding to pursue these park projects at least for now.

—Not many cities have been able to provide substantial funding for Affordable Housing projects since the State of California eliminated Community Redevelopment Act authority for cities. Indio has a very limited pool of funds available to incentivize new projects. This is yet another underfunded priority. We are encouraged that there are some very good nonprofit agencies pursuing affordable housing projects in Indio.

We feel good about how much gets done in Indio despite the fact we are still a modestly funded operation with a truly tiny staff for a City our size. We are working hard to build our economy, to build good job opportunities for our residents and to help us fund City services. Things have been moving in the right direction for several years, and we hope the local economy will bounce back from the recent setbacks.

We are not the City of Los Angeles with a “Police spending per capita” ratio that is three times ours. We are doing better with less and striving to be the most forward looking, community-based Police operation in the region. Small, but highly committed to our community values.