Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory will press city officials to let him hire six more patrol officers, a request likely to emerge as a flash point in upcoming talks over the annual budget.
Gregory asked for the officers last year but didn't get approval from City Manager Carey Smith. He's ready to try again, arguing his 66-member patrol force is stretched thin and needs more manpower to keep pace with Rock Hill's expanding city limits.
The last expansion of the police force required a tax increase. That came in 2006, when the city created a street crimes unit and annual tax bills went up by $38, on average.
This week, in response to questions from The Herald, Gregory made clear his hopes for reinforcements. His three-year strategic plan, now in its third year, called for the additional staff.
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"I felt strongly about it three years ago when I wrote it up the first time," he said. "It's the right thing to do. We are really at a point where I need to know if we're going to be able to do anything with our goal-setting."
In turning him down a year ago, Smith said he wanted to watch how the newly created street crimes unit performed before deciding on broader staffing changes. Gregory did little to hide his frustration at the time, saying in an interview, "I wouldn't have asked for the six if we didn't need them. But we're moving on."
The City Council will get its first look at Smith's budget proposal during two workshops on April 29 and May 19. Public hearings and votes are set to follow on June 9 and June 23.
"It is important, and it will be given all due consideration," Smith said, declining to elaborate because the proposal hasn't been finalized or shown to council members. "We've talked a lot about it already."
The question appears to be whether budget-makers can find a way to add positions without raising taxes.
Six new officers would cost about $600,000, including salary, vehicles and equipment. New officers make $30,000 in salary, but costs such as training, in-car computers and radios must be factored in.
Councilman Jim Reno said the slumping national economy makes for a tough budget season. Without seeing the overall spending plan, Reno wasn't ready to zero in on the police question.
"There's just an overall heightened sense of putting the leanest budget together," Reno said. "If your gas is going up and your groceries are going up ... my take on it is the average person is having to watch their income and expenses."
Wal-Mart on horizon
For police, a new burden could loom on the northwest side of town. Officers will be pulled into new territory when a Wal-Mart Supercenter opens next April on S.C. 161, generating waves of traffic and the potential for hundreds of more calls.
The new Wal-Mart, being built on land annexed by the city, expects to serve 50,000 customers.
Last year, the Wal-Mart at the Rock Hill Galleria proved to be the No. 1 location for car accidents in the entire city, with 46 collisions reported in the parking lot.
"There's a lot of fender benders and things," said York Police Chief Bill Mobley, whose town got a Super Wal-Mart more than a decade ago. "You name it, it occurs. You've got bad checks, forgeries, thefts, husbands and wives getting into it. All at Wal-Mart."
Gregory wants to use the new officers to shrink the size of patrol zones across the city. That way, officers would be responsible for smaller geographic areas and could respond faster to calls. Under the current setup, an officer patrolling downtown also is responsible for calls near the Catawba River, some 6 miles away.
The department has struggled in recent years to keep its current roster filled. Four officers are deployed for military duty overseas. Others left for new jobs, creating more vacancies.
Currently, all 66 slots are filled, though at least seven officers are in training and haven't hit the streets, Gregory said. The department also has a four-person traffic team.
Rock HiIl's population, estimated at 65,000, is growing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year, city figures show.
Where should resources go?
The five-member street crimes unit was formed in 2006 to focus on hot-button crime issues around the city, such as drug dealing and car break-ins.
It took until last year to be fully staffed.
"This is not a decision being postponed simply because we don't think the officers are needed," Smith said then. "It has more to do with making sure the resources are used in the best possible way to reduce crime. That's our No. 1 goal."
Since Gregory took over five years ago, the department's budget has increased from $9 million in the 2003-2004 budget to $10.9 million for 2007-2008. A full-time crime analyst, Damien Williams, uses the CompStat software program to track crime trends.
CompStat pinpoints trouble spots and shows where more officers are needed, police say. With the city's boundaries pushing outward, CompStat's maps grow every year.
"The worst thing that can happen is to look around five years from now and say, 'We should have seen this coming,'" Gregory said. "It's not a crystal ball. We're looking at trends."