The city of Cottonwood is an outlier when it comes to budgeting for its police department, according to Cottonwood Police Department Chief Steve Gesell.
For the 2018 fiscal year, the Cottonwood City Council requested a 3 percent budget cut across departments in anticipation of a budget approval on Tuesday, June 20.
For CPD, the expected cuts amount to an approximate $224,000 less than the department requested for the year. Cuts to CPD’s expenditures include three positions and $25,000 in supplies, services, training and travel expenses.
“I continue to hear about police agencies in our county or in metropolitan areas that are adding public safety positions and addressing deferred needs borne out of the recession” Gesell said. “Today [May 23] at our regional law enforcement administrator’s meeting, I asked if any other agency head had been asked to cut their budget. Only one was asked to leave a position open next fiscal year. Others are experiencing budget increases.
“Other cities are adding. That should be concerning to the community.”
Gesell added that in the short term, “these cuts are certainly manageable [but] I do not believe they are sustainable or healthy and threaten to impact the quality of service we can provide.”
According to Gesell, the recession has taught the community and its government how to “do more with less,” allowing services to be stretched to meet demand.
Nonetheless, as the economy has improved Gesell has noted a lack of commensurate progress in Cottonwood — a lack that may result in an inability to maintain current service levels. Cottonwood Administrative Services General Manager Rudy Rodriguez lamented the budgetary constraints placed on CPD but said the issue is not about lacking the resources to hire new officers but finding people to fill the positions.
“We can’t hire officers. If you look around, we’re all short police officers,” Rodriguez said, citing national anti-law enforcement rhetoric and the Black Lives Matter movement as the prime reasons people do not seek careers as police officers, including in rural areas like Cottonwood.
According to Rodriguez, it makes little sense to budget positions that will ultimately go unfilled, adding that the money would be better spent on surer expenditures.
“It’s going to be money tied up that we know we’re not going to use,” he said. “We can use that money somewhere else. There’s no use in budgeting something you know you’re not going to get.” Rodriguez said, “If we can just fill the vacancies we currently have [in the police department] we’re very fortunate. We would love to hire [new officers], but realistically there are vacancies everywhere.”
Though Gesell is in agreement with Rodriguez about the negative impact of media coverage — Gesell has spoken previously with the Cottonwood Journal Extra about the difficulties of attracting talent in the current cultural environment — he believes the city is missing an opportunity to proactively seek new officers.
“We seem to be headed in the opposite direction [of other communities],” Gesell said. “This is the fourth officer position we’ve cut in three years. We’ve also deferred capital needs ... and reduced other areas such as employee training, recruitment, our SWAT team’s budget and funds used to support initiatives or programs that help forge positive relationships with the community we serve.”
The prime issue impacting Cottonwood’s ability to compete with other communities seeking officers and other staff, Gesell said, is that Cottonwood has no property tax and a particularly low sales tax at 3 percent, a situation that places a heavy burden on city departments to meet budget constraints while still offering full services.
“Having worked for other municipalities large and small, I strongly believe Cottonwood runs extremely lean, some would argue to its own detriment,” Gesell said. “The reality is we run a city primarily on the lowest municipal tax burden in Yavapai County and sales tax revenues are falling short of post-recession predictions.”
Regardless, Gesell said that he has faith in the City Council to “separate fact from fiction and put us on the right path regarding the delta between revenue and expenditures.”
According to Gesell, one of the major factors impeding recruitment and retention is that CPD’s recruitment initiatives has not fully caught up with what other cities and towns are offering. These include not only marketing but also investments in infrastructure attractive to incoming officers; infrastructure, Gesell noted, that is also being impacted heavily by cuts.
The quality of life may be what attracts people to Cottonwood, Gesell said, but CPD risks substantial attrition to its ranks if the “unsustainable” pattern of not investing in the department continues.