CHESTER -- Chester residents won't see any new taxes this year, but they won't see any new police positions, either.
City leaders denied Chester Police Chief Mike Brown's request to hire two additional officers, cutting $125,000 from his budget proposal and allocating his department only slightly more money than it received last year.
"We're gonna have to improvise," Brown said. "I'm sure it was a tough decision on their part."
The decision comes amid what county authorities say is a drug war raging between five neighborhood groups, some of which operate within city limits. In April, this violence prompted four shootings in three days, including a homicide.
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Several community forums were held last month to address the gang and drug problems. During those events, residents told city and county leaders that they wanted more officers in their neighborhoods.
But that won't be happening in Chester.
City officials approved a $5.2 million budget this week that's only slightly higher than last year's. Taxes won't go up, but city employees' salaries won't increase, either.
Citing a slumping economy and skyrocketing fuel prices, officials said cuts were better for residents than a tax increase.
"I just didn't feel like we could impose a burden on the taxpayers," City Councilwoman Linda Tinker said. "You just have tighten the belt. Everybody's having to do it."
But not everybody is happy about the decision.
"The money is there," said Makeda Baker, a community activist who lives in East Chester, where a man was shot to death in April.
City leaders, Baker said, don't spend enough money on important services such as security.
"They want to use it on frivolous kinds of stuff that just has no bearing on the actual quality of life within the community," she said, though she couldn't cite specifics. "I don't like it. I'm tired of it."
Tinker, who chairs the city's finance committee, said the city made cuts in every department, leaving only the essentials.
"If they had any fluff in any line, we took it down," she said of trimming department heads' funding requests. "Nothing (frivolous). Absolutely to the bone."
Tinker commended the city staff for removing all the non-vital projects, and insisted the city will be safe without the additional officers.
"You just have to cut corners where you have to cut them," she said. "Our level of safety will not decrease."
The two officer positions were initially grant-funded, but the city no longer has that money. One post opened up several months ago and another became available recently.
Along with not filling these vacancies, city leaders decided to make its community service officer a volunteer post. That job is for a non-certified officer who doesn't carry a gun but helps with back-to-school events and the children's toy drive at Christmas.
City officials are changing their policy about officers driving police vehicles home. Under the new guidelines, only Brown and employees who live within five miles of the city will be allowed to drive their city vehicles to and from work. Leaders expect the move will save the city $20,000 per year.
Now with a smaller force, Brown said his 27-officer department will restructure shifts, using reserve officers and state constables to fill in as needed. He still plans to install a golf cart patrol in July so officers can develop a better rapport with the community.
"We're gonna do the best with what we've got," he said. "We're gonna pull resources from wherever we can."