SALT LAKE CITY — Calls to defund the police, echoing from coast to coast right now, come at a time when local governments might not have much choice. Simply put, there isn’t much money to go around.
Thanks to COVID-19 and, to a much smaller extent the economic effects of riots that have harmed public property, cities and counties also may not have much left over to fund the social programs or neighborhood investments many protesters and others would like to see.
Calls to defund the police generally focus on narrowing the scope of police duties, with the resulting savings going elsewhere. It’s not clear what savings they’re talking about.
Recessions, and apparently we’re in one that began in February, hurt a lot of things governments do, and especially local governments. Policing is primarily a concern of cities and counties, despite what Congress and the president might want you to think.
The smaller the city, and the more narrow its tax base, the harder it is going to be to pay all the bills.
Take Moab, a city largely dependent on tourism. The Moab Sun News last month quoted an exasperated City Manager Joel Linares, who was trying to find some historical precedent to which he could relate current circumstances.
“The 1918 Spanish flu? Different economy. It just doesn’t work,” he said. “We can’t even go pull from 9/11 or the crash of 2008, the Great Recession — it’s not the same thing, it’s not having the same effects.”
Linares and other city leaders told the paper they worry about providing water, sewer and other essential services that keep people safe. The city’s sales tax revenue in March was two-thirds as much as it was the previous year.
The Council on Foreign Relations published a piece last month that predicted record shortfalls for local governments nationwide because of unemployment, rising health costs and falling tax revenues. Public employee pensions, many of which still are reeling from the Great Recession a decade ago, are taking another hit. Cities and states are imposing hiring freezes or laying people off, both of which contribute to the types of conditions that breed unrest.
This is important because the U.S. economy is the sum total of a lot of small local and regional economies. Washington can print more money and accumulate more debt. The vast majority of states and cities have to balance their budgets.
As the council’s piece said, “Collectively, state and local governments outspend Washington on direct goods and services, employ more workers than the domestic manufacturing sector, and are responsible for about 11% of national GDP.”
People like to complain about Washington — and there are plenty of reasons to do so — but this still is largely a nation of governments close to the people they serve. And when it comes to the two ways to combat a severe recession — cut services or raise taxes — the choices are harder and more personal on local levels.
Salt Lake County said last week it was projecting a $96 million drop in sales and tourism tax revenues. Individual cities within the county are struggling in many similar ways. The state is looking at cuts of up to $2 billion.
Some recent reports from around the nation say big city police departments tend to avoid major cuts during downturns, mainly because city leaders fear a surge in crime. That may change this time, but it’s unclear how.
Slogans make for poor public policies. Yes, mental health professionals and social services workers may be more qualified to handle or diffuse certain situations than police officers. But when domestic violence calls turn deadly, as happened recently in Ogden, or when mass shooters strike, as happens too often everywhere, it’s hard to find a better alternative than a trained police force.
Budget cuts may bring the need to eradicate systemic racism home to law enforcement. They also may force police to stem the purchase of military-styled equipment. However, they don’t seem like solutions in and of themselves.
Maybe in the coming weeks someone will articulate how best to dismantle a police department and rebuild something that still protects the public while removing historic racial biases. Maybe this person also can explain how to do this with a lot less money. Let’s hope so.