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Jun 12

Living Within a Budget

Posted on June 12, 2017 at 8:51 AM by Jamie Bastas

Chief Myers' blog
As adults, most of us figured out long ago how easy we had it as kids when it came to money. We didn’t think much about the future or planning for major life choices or necessities; and we certainly didn’t think about working within a financial budget. Even by the time we graduated from high school, the reality is that most of us learned these skills through a combination of mentoring and training at home, our formal school education, some life experiences and trial and error.

It is within that context that I’m always amazed when I hear how surprised people are about the fiscal limits of a police agency budget. It is sometimes difficult for people to understand that we also have to pay our light bill, have to pay for the gasoline that runs our patrol cars, have expenses related to uniforms or bullets, etc. All of these are necessary parts of our budget. To fully understand how tight budgets impact policing, it might be helpful for a short history lesson.

Police Departments, as publicly funded government agencies, operate under common accounting systems designed for tax supported entities. Municipal budgets typically have a Capital component (big-ticket items like buildings, major equipment, construction, etc.) and an Operating component. Our Operating budgets are typically divided into Personnel costs (salaries, benefits…everything that is directly tied to the cost of employing people) and Non-Personnel costs (everything else). This may be an over-simplification, but is pretty consistent across the country.

When I first became a police chief in 1984, the majority of police agencies nationally used about 80-85% of their budgets on Personnel, leaving only 10-15% for everything else. But, governments began to cut back and unfortunately, we were all asked to do more with less. Today, most police departments spend in excess of 90% of their budgets just on Personnel related costs; again, leaving very little for anything else.
It may be the perception that police agencies have too many officers or that they are paid too much, causing the high rate of personnel expense. However, it is actually the contrary. Local governments have been so focused on reducing municipal service budgets and cuts were necessary, forcing police chiefs across the USA to try hard to preserve the jobs of police officers. As a result, declining budgets saw less money spent on consumables, longer replacement schedules on critical equipment like patrol cars and police radios and uniform equipment, etc. The overall number of officers rarely increased and often decreased. In many agencies today, there are fewer police officers than there were in the days before 9/11. Pay raises in many cities were “frozen” for multiple years in the early 2000’s, putting municipal jobs in general, but especially police agency jobs further behind the recorded cost of living increases.

The result of all this is the tight margin on Personnel costs these days. If a police department is forced to make budget cuts today, it will most likely be done by reducing personnel. There is little money left to cut from the gasoline or uniform line items. We currently live in an era of “do more with less.”

Having provided this history, it is important to note that there is widespread variance as to the degree of budget reductions across the country. Fortunately, the Newport News Police Department has been able to restore most of the formerly cut positions and is fully budgeted for our authorized strength -but can’t fill all the vacancies! Those dollars must remain ear-marked for personnel in order to keep our officers and citizens safe and we still must live within the budget set forth by the municipality.

In addition, budgeting for Non-Personnel related items is difficult at best. For example, gasoline can swing wildly over the course of a year or two, making long-term planning very challenging. Utility bills and other contractual services can go up at rates faster than routine budget growth. When something like that goes up disproportionately, something else usually needs to be reduced.

Our new fiscal year begins July 1st. In the “good old days,” the common thinking was that government agencies like NNPD would rush to “spend down” our remaining funds this time of year….often referred to as the “use it or lose it” mentality. This is no longer the case and the reality about public management of funds today is that we take being good stewards of tax funded budgets as a serious responsibility. We do not “spend down” our dollars and in fact are more diligent about spending in order to stay within the city’s allotted annual budget.

To bring things back around, presuming we’re doing a professional job of “right-sizing” our workforce (the Personnel side of the budget), in effect, our leadership team is basically making decisions about how best to spend the 10% of the budget that is non-personnel. As you can imagine, this is why our agency, like several others around the country, is very grateful for the opportunity to pursue grants, and extremely grateful for the generosity of our local Police Foundation.

There will always be those who believe starting rookie police officers off at about $40,000 per year is too much, and that it is okay that critical-mission police support staff barely make over the government defined poverty level. I’m not one of those voices, and I don’t apologize for the wage we pay our employees, even though at times I’m chagrined that we can’t do better.

My hope is that when people hear of projects like the Police Foundation’s effort to help secure a new training facility and kennels for our K9 programs, that instead of saying…that’s what I pay taxes for… they now have a better understanding of the limited funds available to our department and therefore support the Department and Foundation in these efforts.

You can learn more about the Newport News Police Foundation on their website at

Chief Richard Myers