Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The calls just keep coming.

Doing my morning reading, I was struck by a columnist expressing the latest in a long line of group grievance. She was explaining that, while the latest recession forced companies to downsize and lay off workers, the robust public sector keeps paying their employees huge wages and lavish fringe benefits for jobs-for-life doing work no one wants.

Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah?

Sorry, must be the coffee.

This is a path so well travelled that it should be paved. The sentiment could easily be attributed to envy, to the grass being greener and the other lane moving faster. Etcetera.

But while pundits and babblers seem prepared to throw the stones, no one has any solid ideas regarding demand for city services. Here's an example.

Over the years, my police department has transitioned to telephone and Internet reporting of minor incidents. If a citizen has suffered minor property damage (mailbox destroyed, car window broken, graffiti) an offense report is completed with a desk officer (often someone recovering from an on-duty injury) or a non-sworn employee. Easy, efficient, no waiting around for an officer to arrive. We used to get by with a lone cop doing these chores. Now, we need three or four just to keep up.

The demand for police services is never ending. Everyone in crisis wants a cop and they want them now! Most of the calls we go on require two or three officers just for safety. On top of that the legislature adds mandates, silly laws and goofy pronouncements whenever they're in session. The Supreme Courts (state and Federal) find tinkering with established precedents irresistible, changing the rules for our authority and always adding procedures. Phone volume to our dispatch center has quadrupled since I started my career. The number of officers on the street has doubled and we can hardly keep up with the calls. And we're lucky - our city is in pretty good shape.

Potholes, traffic lights, rec centers, building permits. This has been an especially harsh winter - imagine what the city spends for snow plows, sand, chemicals, fuel. The cost of plowing every city street after a foot of snow (not uncommon in Colorado in the winter) - million dollars. Yet, the phones ring off the hook if it isn't done immediately. We had a tornado this year, several major water main breaks.... That's what tax dollars are paid to address. We have no choice, we can't turn a blind eye.

You could probably get someone to take my place for less money. You don't always need you? I have a law degree and have practiced in two states, university teaching experience, ten years on the SWAT negotiations team and a career that began in the 1970s. I'm a husband, father and grandfather bringing substantial life experience to work every day. I get paid pretty well for my time. Now - do you want me deciding your immediate legal fate, or somebody you pulled in at minimum wage?

And while I'm on this rant - ever watch someone give a two-month-old CPR knowing the child was going to die, while physically restraining the parents from attacking the paramedics out of pure grief? Know what a dead body looks or smells like after a few weeks in a warm room? Ever seen pieces of brick embedded in the skull of a woman pleading with you not to arrest her husband because he's all she has? Ever see anyone pinned in a car? Know what their pleas for help sound like when there is nothing you can do to help them? Finally - do you know what the library at Columbine High School looked like the day of the murders? Many of my friends do. How much will you pay not to have those experiences?

In short, if citizens want to reduce the cost of government they will have to reduce their demand for quality services.

That won't ever happen.

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