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Duluth police chief asks City Council to lessen budget cuts

Mike Tusken (2013 file photo / News Tribune)

Police Chief Mike Tusken asked the Duluth City Council Thursday night to temper the proposed $325,000 budget cut his department appears poised to receive in 2018.

He asked for $177,500 in relief so that the department would need to absorb a more modest blow of $147,500.

"We're not going to be bashful. My job is to advocate for my department," Tusken said.

To achieve the kind of savings Mayor Emily Larson's administration proposes, Tusken said he would need to eliminate the equivalent of 2.5 full-time civilian positions in his records department.

"The very core of everything we do is based on information, and so for us to function effectively as a department, we have to have good records," he said.

Tusken said the staff working in the records department enable his officers to spend more productive time in the field and to quickly focus their efforts on problem areas when crime patterns begin to emerge. He stressed that real-time information from the records department helps make his officers more effective crime fighters.

The additional requested funds could prevent some of those painful cuts, Tusken said.

But he's prepared to eliminate costs in other areas.

While Tusken said the mounted patrol the police have operated in recent years has provided excellent public outreach, he called it "a nice-to-do, not a need-to-do."

"In an environment where we are looking at potentially having to lay off staff, it just is not feasible to maintain that any more," he said.

"It's not the horses that cost the money. It's the people who are on the horses, and then you have to start making decisions about: Do I want to investigate domestic assaults/sex assaults? Do I want to go after child predators? And I believe first and foremost you have to keep your community safe before you do some of these other projects," he said.

The City Council will set the Duluth's levy in December, and there will be little wiggle room to raise more money through property taxes to fulfill Tusken's request. Councilors learned Thursday that the city's property tax projections for 2018 have been adjusted upward by about $440,000, despite a proposed $2.1 million in total budget cuts.

As bargaining units for staff working at other cities across the state have been completing their contract negotiations, Duluth's initial projections for what its own pending contract talks will yield have changed.

"We're saying where that baseline for settlements is falling out. They vary across the state, but they are falling within a bandwidth, and we were outside that bandwidth," said David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, explaining where $340,000 of the increase had originated.

Montgomery also pointed to softening sales tax collections as the second factor that made the city decide to increase its levy request by another $100,000.

The maximum levy the City Council authorized in September allowed for a 6.4 percent increase in 2018. That built in a cushion of more than $600,000, which has now been reduced to about $175,000 under the city's revised budget calling for a 6.26 percent levy increase.

During a budget discussion Thursday night, 4th District Councilor Howie Hanson advised his colleagues on the council to think carefully before pushing the levy to its uppermost limit. Referring to the $175,000 still left before the cap, he said: "It's not candy money."

Montgomery concurred, saying: "It's real money that real people would have to pay."

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