Last week it was suggested that Houston voters should agree to pay more in property taxes in order to hire more police. We have already done that once, in 2006. Perhaps before we rush to allow the City to increase property taxes by more than the 4.5% annual amount the City charter now allows[i], we should take a look at how that 2006 increase worked out.
As most of you know, in 2004, Houston voters amended the City charter to keep the City from raising property taxes by more than the sum of inflation and population increase. In 2006, the City came back to voters and asked for an additional $90 million above that cap, in perpetuity. That is to say, $90 million would be added to the calculation of the 2004 cap each year in the future. That extension of the cap has now been in place for 11 years, so Houston taxpayers have forked over nearly a billion additional dollars over the original cap for “public safety.”
How much additional public safety has our nearly one billion dollars bought us? Turns out, not so much.
FY2006-2007 was the last year before the City began collecting the extra $90 million each year. According to the City’s annual reports, since 2007 the City added a whopping 20 employees to the police department’s payroll, a three-tenths of one percent increase (0.3%). [ii] Seventy police officers and forty-five cadets have been added, but the number of civilian employees and cadets have fallen by ninety-five, meaning that more officers have been transferred from patrol and investigation to administrative jobs.
Of course, the HPD budget has risen significantly, going from $576 million in 2007 to $827 million this year, a 44% increase. The budget for personnel has grown from $535 million to $782 million, a 46% increase. The average per-employee personnel cost (salary plus all benefits and insurance) has grown from $85,253 to $123,553. (Click [here] to review 2007 and 2018 HPD budgets.)
Based on any objective measure I can find, there is no evidence that these added expenses have made the police department more efficient. The number of arrests made by HPD fell from 122,000 in 2007 to just under 52,000 last year, a 57% decrease. It issued 544,000 fewer tickets last year than in 2007, a 58% decline. The City only started reporting clearance rate in its budgets in 2012. That year, HPD cleared 18.6% of “Part I” offenses (all violent crime plus burglary and auto theft). In its budget request this year, HPD estimated it had cleared 13.4% in FY2016-2017. HPD estimates of its response times have not changed significantly.
Nor is it true that HPD is significantly understaffed compared to other cities. According to a 2016 Governing Magazine study, the ten largest cities in the US have an average of 25 officers per 10,000 residents. Houston has 22 and is, therefore, 12% below the average. However, there are three cities, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia which are significantly above the average at 42, 43 and 41, respectively. If you drop those three out, the average of the remaining cities is 21, slightly below Houston.
Of course, it is patently absurd to compare Houston to New York in terms of police staffing because of the special risks New York faces, e.g., the United Nations. Chicago and Philadelphia have violent crime rates that are roughly equivalent to Houston’s, indicating that their larger forces have not accomplished much. It is also worth noting that these three cities have the largest negative net deficits of all U.S. cities. So, they should hardly be examples by which we should manage our city.
The next five largest cities in Texas have an average of 15 officers per 10,000, well below Houston. Among the five, only Dallas is higher at 25.
So, does Houston need more police officers? Probably. But I am fed up with throwing more money at the police department with no accountability. I mean, have you ever heard anyone at the City ask why arrests are down by 57% in the last ten years, including a 16% drop last year? Have you heard anyone ask HPD why the violent crime clearance rate is down by nearly 5% in the last six years? I certainly have not.
Communities all over this city are already coming out of pocket to hire constables and private security companies to patrol their neighborhoods because they cannot get HPD to do so. Does anyone really believe that if we allow the City to raise property taxes, patrols will suddenly appear in their neighborhoods. And after the City used the drainage fees to pay for employees and pet projects, does anyone believe this money will really be used to hire police officers? Until we have some demonstration that the City can more efficiently manage HPD and that it can keep its promises on how it will spend our money, I am not voting to give it another dime.
[i] The charter amendment is based on a formula. Since the adoption of the amendment, City property taxes have averaged increasing 4.4% annually.
[ii] There are some HPD personnel that are paid from “special funds.” Since these funds come from various sources and are unaffected by the City’s property tax receipts, I have not included them in this analysis. From 2007 to 2017 the number of HPD employees paid from these funds increased from 95 to 173.