Letters and numbers

Last week, I had two letters to editors published. First, on Tuesday, Foster’s Daily Democrat published a letter about the insanity of the War on Drugs (second letter from the bottom, in response to this inane editorial). Then, on Thursday, the Portsmouth Herald published one on the DWI checkpoints. For some reason, they skipped a couple of days of on-line letters, so I’ll paste it here:

DWI checkpoints are un-American

Surely a cash-strapped state and city can find something more worthwhile for $10,000 than DWI checkpoints! (“Police receive $43K grant for traffic stops,” Apr. 20.)

While I certainly think that motorists who are observed actively endangering other motorists can and should be removed from the road, DWI checkpoints inconvenience large numbers of innocent motorists without probable cause.

Last summer, one Portsmouth checkpoint stopped about 800 motorists, resulting in four DWI citations (and four other detected violations). That means that about 790 motorists were stopped and questioned for no reason whatsoever—except to show that Portsmouth P.D. is working hard.

The US Supreme Court may have held that these checkpoints are constitutional, but this kind of “papers, please!” grandstanding is definitely un-American.

So that was nice. One colleague of mine in an entirely non-political context brought up that letter (the only way I knew it was published) and said he agreed. Good letters to editors are an excellent way to reach a large number of people; my tally is not nearly as high as Scott McPherson’s yet, but I’m still new in town. Give me time.

Tonight was the budget work session for the fire and police budgets. The good news is that the Fire Commission had already submitted a zero-increase budget, and that the Police Commission revised their submission to also have a zero increase. I still have a few concerns with these budgets, however.

First, much of the savings in both proposals comes out of overtime expenditures. If there is a major fire or a weather disaster, neither department is likely to simply not respond because their budgets have been exhausted; indeed, the overtime budget has been exceeded in previous years, so why should we rely on the proposed number this year? Worse, retirement contributions are based on pay received, so the proposals include cuts in retirement contributions that are also likely to be fictitious.

The fire department proposal includes over $400,000 for overtime coverage due to earned time leave. It seems like sensible scheduling, or even hiring one additional firefighter (at $47,000 salary, so about $100,000 total cost) could eliminate that overtime hit. How many people have worked in a job where they were told that certain blocks of time were unavailable for vacation because there wouldn’t be enough coverage? Why can’t the fire department do that? (There probably is a reason, and it probably involves a union contract.)

The fire department proposal also cuts $5,000 from the training budget; however, fiscal year 2008 had training expenditures that were $10,000 over budget! Is this more fictitious savings?

The police budget proposal was presented after the fire proposal, and the room cleared out. Is the police department less controversial? I suspect so; Police Chief Magnant is far more politic than Fire Chief LeClaire. That can work both ways; Chief LeClaire’s proposal was short and to the point, while Chief Magnant’s presentation was long, supported by PowerPoint, and talked at length about how awesome the Portsmouth Police are before finally getting to the point about the budget.

I’ve observed before that Portsmouth has a far higher per-capita number of sworn officers than San Francisco; about three times. If you take Magnant’s assertion that the service population is actually 65,000, then the number drops to 0.1% of the service population, but you then also have to double San Francisco’s population, and the officer count there drops to 0.06%. Interestingly, Magnant also invited the comparison at the end of his presentation: “I can’t think of another place, except somewhere like San Francisco or San Diego, that provides the services we do and receives the accolades that we do.” (Quotation approximate.)

Magnant also asserted that the City Council asked for no layoffs. I do wonder about that approach. Sure, no one wants to be the one to lay off one’s own neighbors. My boss felt terrible about laying me off! But she did it anyway, because the company had to cut its budget. Why is this not an option for the city government?

In coincidence (I presume) with my letter above, Magnant made particular note of the city’s DWI checkpoints. The police give out surveys to every motorist stopped; he averred that 99% of them come back with positive comments. I do wonder what fraction of the surveys come back at all. My one experience with a checkpoint (over ten years ago in Connecticut, half a mile from my parents’ house, around Yule) was not unprofessional in any way, nor unpleasant on its surface, but still left me feeling completely violated and queasy. I do not know that I would have brought more attention by returning a negative survey. The chief also noted, in regards to the downtown crowds, “We’re responsible for the safety of these people.” Actually, courts at all levels have repeatedly held that they are not; further, it is impossible. Perhaps they should focus on catching perpetrators of harm to others instead. (That said, Portsmouth’s case closure rates are vastly superior to San Francisco’s!)

As noted above, most of the savings came from cutting overtime pay. It will be interesting to see what actual expenditures for fiscal year 2009 come out to, relative to that budget, and to see what similar ratios do to the 2010 budget. Another fascinating note about union politics came up, in response to a question from Councilor Kennedy. The Animal Control Officer is being reduced to a part-time position; Kennedy asked if training for other officers would be used to supplement and support that position. Magnant responded that the two areas of responsibility are represented by different bargaining units, and so sharing responsibility is effectively impossible. I fully support unions as voluntary associations in the private sector, but have never seen them do anything good when it comes to government employees.

After this, the budget front is quiet until 11 May. I will have to find something else to occupy myself with in the meanwhile.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Chris:

    Glad you’re getting LTEs published. You wrote that your “tally is not nearly as high as Scott McPherson’s yet”. Trust me, dude: no one sees this as a competition. There’s really no way to gauge the effectiveness of this tactic, but ultimately we write LTEs and op-eds to promote freedom, not to accumulate points on an invisible scoreboard. Keep up the good work. Portsmouth needs a dedicated freedom activist and you’re doing a fine job.

  2. I’m a primate, Scott. Competition helps motivate me. (-: Thanks for the compliment.

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