Thinning blue line

Due to budget cuts caused by revenue loss over the past several years, the city’s police department has seen decreased funding for new hires and equipment, officials said.

Niles police Chief Robert J. Hinton said several yet unfilled vacancies due to retirements in the last few years have left his department stretched thin.

According to Hinton, the department’s authorized strength was met in 2010 with 37 full-time officers, but the roster currently sits at 31.

”No one has been laid off,” Hinton said. ”It’s just a matter of attrition, people retiring and those slots not being replaced.”

Though he said the department has been doing more with less, Hinton is concerned the decreased numbers of uniformed officers could begin to show with other communities pushing criminals off of their city streets.

The Warren Police Department began a new Street Crimes Unit in July to combat drug crimes in the area.

”I know Warren is really beefing up with their Street Crimes Unit,” Hinton said. ”My fear is that they’re going to be pushing them our way, because they’re putting the heat on the streets. So, we need to keep the heat on the streets on our end also.

Niles attempted a trial run of its own Streets Crime Unit earlier in the summer, but the funding is not there to make it permanent, Hinton said.

”They produced when they were out working,” the chief said. ”We just don’t have the staffing to make it happen.”

In addition, to adapt to staffing issues, the department has been forced to prioritize calls and conduct follow-up investigations on a case-by-case basis.

”Sometimes maybe shortcuts are taken on certain calls because we have other calls that are waiting for us to respond to,” Hinton said. ”An officer can’t dedicate the length of time he normally would when we had the full staffing to a call and be able to follow up.

”We’ve dedicated two detectives to narcotics full-time, so that’s obviously a priority for us,” he added.

Over the past six years, city finances have left officials with few options but to cut budgets and look for savings when possible.

According to documents provided by the Niles Auditor’s Office, annual budget appropriations for the police department have been steadily declining since 2007, when it was about $4.8 million. The 2013 projected budget was down to just under $4.3 million.

The safety forces budget is funded solely through the general fund.

”The most important thing to the general fund is to generate interest and income,” Nader said. ”The banks lost a lot of money in 2008 and, with that, the interest rates fell. We went from getting $1 million in interest to $40,000.”

Furthermore, Nader cited the loss of income tax coming into the city due to the closure of several plants, including the General Electric Co.’s Mahoning Glass plant in 2010.

”Also, although Packard and Delphi closed in other places, a lot of people living in Niles worked there,” Nader said. ”That loss of income is felt by the city.”

Documents provided by Nader show income tax collected in Niles down from about $6.3 million in 2007 to $5.7 million last year.

”Every year, that’s money that used to take care of a lot of problems which just isn’t there any more,” Nader said.

A performance audit is being conducted by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office, which officials hope will provide a game plan for fixing some of these financial issues.

Meanwhile, Niles has applied for a federal three-year COPS Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant to secure funding for additional staffing. The grant, administered by the U.S. Justice Department, will allocate $298 million this year to departments across the country.

”We originally applied for five officers, but we were told we only qualify for two full-timers,” Hinton said. ”(U.S. Rep) Tim Ryan’s office wrote a letter on our behalf for the need that we have.”

Niles officials said the city hopes to receive final notice this month.

While Hinton waits for potential answers to the numbers crunch, attempts to compensate for the loss of staff is not the only issue facing the department. Funding for new vehicles has also been cut.

”During my budget hearings last year, I requested about $265,000 for new police vehicles,” Hinton said. ”I got about 10 percent of what I requested, which was $30,000.”

Hinton held off on a 10-year plan to address his department’s fleet.

”We wanted to rotate a certain amount of new cars every year and, after 10 years of service, rotate them out while they’re still worth something,” Hinton said. ”I also proposed all-wheel drive SUVs for our captains, which get much better miles per gallon than our current cars.”

The newest vehicles in their current fleet are from 2011.

”We have models all the way back to 1998 on the road,” Hinton said.

Despite these issues, according to Hinton, Niles police do not want to cut services.

”The community deserves the services that we put out,” Hinton said. ”We haven’t said no to anything yet. I have met with the city to say there may be a time where we have to say no to certain public affairs meetings just because we don’t have the resources to devote to it.

”At the end of the day, the calls are priority.”