Chronic underfunding frays public safety, penal systems: County faces big questions about jail overcrowding, lack of funds for police, prosecutors and public defenders

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In 2005, the city of Indianapolis will spend $277 million on public safety. Marion County will lay out another $186 million.

It’s not enough.

While $463 million may sound like a lot of money, it has to pay for every aspect of local public safety. Every uniformed cop on the street.

All the judges, public defenders and prosecutors in the courts. Jail guards and probation officers, not to mention forensic researchers, city firefighters-even dogcatchers.

Decades of neglect have left the local public safety net threadbare. The result: overcrowded jails, rising suburban crime and no consensus on how to put any more money on the table.

Some problems date back decades. Arguably the biggest is the city’s unfunded liability for police and fire pensions. Way back in 1937, Indianapolis established generous pensions for its public safety retirees, but failed to set up a sustainable mechanism to fund them. City leaders simply assumed escalating tax revenue from a growing population would be enough.

In 1977, the General Assembly set up modernized pension systems for all new cops and firefighters in municipalities around the state. Their contributions go to a fully funded system. But the pre-1977 problem remained. And in Indianapolis, the obligation is increasing dramatically every year.

In 2000, the year Mayor Bart Peterson took office, Indianapolis paid $38.2 million for the pre-’77 pensions. In 2005, it will pay $53.2 million. The price won’t peak until the late 2020s. Its grand total, in today’s dollars, is $470 million.

The rising cost of that obligation each year leaves everless money available to pay for current public safety operations. Most city public safety agencies are already struggling to keep their heads above water. Marion County’s agencies are in even worse shape.

Often cramped into antiquated court facilities, Marion County’s prosecutor and public defender frequently complain about a critical lack of personnel. Judges have the same problem. The wages they pay attorneys and clerks are a mere fraction of the market rate, creating a spiral of employee turnover and continued cases.

Desperately short of money, Marion County four years ago simply quit paying the state its share of the cost of incarcerating juveniles. The county’s unpaid tab now approaches $70 million.

Peterson made good on his promise to hire 200 new Indianapolis Police Department officers, bringing its total force to 1,200. But they don’t fight crime outside the old city limits, where statistics say crime is rising. Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson has only 400 cops. He wants 250 more, but there’s no money to pay the $28 million annual expense.

It took a court mandate to force Marion County to deal with its long-standing jail overcrowding problem. A mandatory cap now keeps the population in check, but only because judges must now free hundreds of accused felons.

Top city and county officials meet monthly for discussion at a public safety council. This fall, the council unveiled a 10-year strategy to overhaul the system. Since Marion County struggled to find even the $43,000 to pay for the study, there was plenty of doubt about implementing its recommendations.

Big-scale solutions are elusive. Suburban residents claim they shouldn’t share the cost of the city’s unfunded pensions. And without authority over county budgets, city officials are reluctant to wade into the swamp of county troubles.

Safe streets are the foundation of a thriving city. If creative solutions aren’t found to public safety’s funding problems, officials will soon be forced to fire cops and lay off firefighters, hindering the city’s progress on many fronts.

Local police forces face pension problems and rising suburban crime.

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