Keep politics out of police budget

A public debate over whether a municipal police department has the necessary resources to serve and protect its community is certainly one worth having – and doing so around budget time isn’t unreasonable on its face.

But there is something downright fishy about the way this conversation has emerged as budget topic No. 1 at Nashua City Hall, which we suspect has as much to do with politics and personalities as it does with public policy.

And the absence of a good working relationship between Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and Police Chief John Seusing isn’t helping. Consider this sequence of events:

• The Police Department submits a $17.67 million budget for fiscal year 2012-13, up roughly 2 percent from the current year, in keeping with the mayor’s budget directive. That figure remains untouched when she releases her budget proposal weeks later.

• On a Friday, three days before it’s scheduled to meet with the aldermanic Budget Review Committee, the department submits a report that shows an alarming increase in crime when comparing the first quarter of 2011 with the same period in 2012.

“If our authorized strength was actually increased to 185 or so, we would probably average 177 true working policemen,” Seusing told the aldermen, citing the amount of time it takes to fill vacancies to reach the authorized number of positions. “I think that would make a significant impact in some of these numbers that we’re seeing.”

• Three weeks later, Seusing again meets with the budget review panel to make the case for more officers, estimating that the addition of eight full-time officers would add about $616,000 to his budget – an additional increase of roughly 3.5 percent.

Sorry, but all this seems a bit too orchestrated for our tastes, particularly injecting the crime report into the conversation on the Friday before a Monday night meeting. That wasn’t a lot of time for the mayor and aldermen to digest the information and formulate some reasonable questions, such as whether the warmer winter may have played a factor in the rising crime figures.

Still, now that it has gotten this far, we suspect the key player to watch is Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess, the former mayor who has not been bashful in calling for additional police resources.

Donchess made that clear during his campaign for
alderman-at-large, which included a press conference at the scene of a major brawl to announce his endorsement by two police unions. That didn’t come as much of a surprise, given he once served as the patrolman union’s labor attorney during the early 2000s.

Donchess also has established himself as perhaps the mayor’s biggest critic, especially on police matters. Earlier this year, he publicly took her to task for not notifying the aldermen when she was approached by Seusing and the Police Commission over an expected shortfall in overtime funds.

Lozeau said she didn’t feel it was necessary because neither had specifically asked for any action; Donchess countered that the aldermen had a right to know one the city’s largest department’s was facing a six-figure deficit in its OT account.

Clearly, a public debate on whether the Police Department has the proper resources to carry out its function effectively is a worthwhile endeavor.

But in this case, we fear the final decision on whether to boost the size of the force – whatever it might be – could be based on factors other than whether it is truly warranted.