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Phantom police funds, phantom cops on beat

Updated: November 16, 2011 8:59AM

Whenever we write about the 1,400 police officer positions in the city budget that have been left vacant, we hear from police who want to know what the city is doing with all the money that’s not being used to fill those jobs.

I used to think that question was somewhat naive.

After all, the city budget is just a spending blueprint. It’s not as if the money the budget proposes to use for police, or any other single line item for that matter, is sitting around in some separate account waiting to be spent for that purpose or nothing else.

The city doesn’t even necessarily receive all the funds it’s anticipating to be available to spend in a given year, a particular problem in the current economy.

But the more I thought about it, I realized it was still a legitimate question.

For many years now, former Mayor Richard Daley proposed — and the City Council approved — a budget that purported to be spending large sums on police officers, when in fact there were no plans to hire enough officers to reach those staffing levels. It was all pretend.

At this point, that hiring gap amounts to about $100 million a year — my shirt-tail estimate of what those 1,400 police officers would cost. That’s what we’re missing from a budgeted force of 13,500 sworn officers.

That’s $100 million that Daley — and now Rahm Emanuel — could use as a cushion against lower than anticipated revenues or to cover overruns elsewhere in the city budget that might not be so politically popular as police.

As you know, residents of Chicago rarely complain about having too much police protection, which is what makes this a great way to hide money in the budget. (It’s also the reason Emanuel’s campaign promise to put “1,000 more police on the streets” resonated with voters, and why he’s been so eager to cook the numbers to make it appear he is close to fulfilling that promise despite not having hired a single cop so far.)

A City Hall source concedes that the dollars that were earmarked but never spent for police were actually used by the Daley administration as a behind-the-scenes method to balance the budget.

While a portion of the money was never there to spend, the result of unmet revenue projections in a faltering economy, some of the funds were used by Daley budgeteers to pay for such expenses as overtime, some of it in the police department, some not.

Even the Emanuel administration has taken advantage of the phantom police funds to ease the financial crunch during his first year in office by using some of the money to do some hiring — in other city departments — and for other unexpected expenses.

Chicago aldermen ought to inquire in depth at their budget hearings this fall about how the police vacancy money was used in recent years, although in all honesty that’s crying over spilled milk at this point.

The big question now is how to handle the police vacancies in the future. Supt. Garry McCarthy originally said he was looking at eliminating the vacancies to save $93 million, drawing protests from the police union, which naturally wants to see those jobs filled.

Then McCarthy told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board last week that he doesn’t want to eliminate the positions after all, even though he sees no need for more police at this time while he’s still reorganizing the department. “What we might do is just hold on to them and not fill them, which actually does represent a cost savings in the budget,” McCarthy said, which sounded a lot like Daley’s approach to me.

Of course, eliminating vacant police positions wouldn’t really save any money, except on paper. On the other hand, neither would it leave the city with fewer police. If the city really wanted to hire police, it could still do so.

But eliminating the vacancies would have the definite advantage of giving the city a more honest budget than it has now, while also taking away the possibility of that money being used for fiscal funny business.

The Emanuel administration seems to be leaning toward a compromise solution that splits the baby in a way that strikes me as more political than Solomon-like. They’ll keep the positions in the budget but in a manner that acknowledges there is no current plan to spend the money to fill them.

“We’re going to put those positions essentially in a reserve account,” said city Budget Director Alex Holt.

Maybe we could call it the Phantom Police Reserve Account.

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