Is the HMB police budget out of line?

Posted by on Wed, June 20, 2007

Darin Boville
Click for larger image.
Darin Boville
Click for larger image.

Darin Boville has posted an interesting analysis of the Half Moon Bay Police Department budget on his new blog MontaraFog.

Darin shows that the city’s police budget on a per-capita and percentage of expenditures basis is in the top 25% of San Mateo County cities.  That’s surprising when you consider that nearly every city in the county is more urbanized, and Half Moon Bay is being beaten out by places like Daly City, San Mateo, and South San Francisco.

Comparisons are always tricky. After all, smaller cities have to spread the same overhead over fewer taxpayers and smaller budgets. But it’s worth considering that Pacifica, which is more blue-collar (and generally scruffier) than Half Moon Bay, spends 32% of its budget ($197 per capita) on its police department, compared to Half Moon Bay’s 43% of budget and $375 per capita.

Next year, the city plans to spend $4.7 million on its police department, not including its stated desire to build a police station.

Answer to the question in the article headline: Yes.

I have been trying to get people to take notice of the explosive growth in the HMB Police Department’s budget. I appreciate Darin’s efforts to collect this data, which pretty much confirms my viewpoint.

A time-series plot of HMB Police Department spending is even more revealing. Take a look at the graph on page 7 of the City’s “Budget-in-Brief” document available at the link below:

On the graph, “Public Safety” means Police Services. Spending on this category dwarfs spending on every other City department.

It would also be useful to compare cities on the basis of “Police spending per felony arrest,” or even “Police spending per total arrests.”  I would expect HMB to rank as one of the top spenders in these categories as well.

This analysis is an overly simplistic review of very complex economic and social factors, which seriously misleads an uninformed public.

Anyone who passed 7th grade science knows that for any study to be valid one must control all of the variables, except the one that they are trying to show directly effects the outcome.  This study controls none of the factors of city budget, but claims the City of Half Moon Bay is spending too much for police services.

If there were 2 people, one with $10 in his pocket and the other with $100 in his, and they both bought a gallon of milk for $4, would you argue that the person with $10 spent too much because 40% of his money (budget) went for milk, while the person with $100 only spent 4% of his money on milk?

3 Cities, one with a population of 10k, another with 50k and the last with 100k all hire a police officer.  The 10k City pays 40k/yr, the 50k City pays 50k/yr and the 100k City pays 60k/yr.  Would you argue that the 100k City is getting the best deal because they spend $.60 per person, while the 50k City and 10k City spend $1 and $4 respectively?

Without controlling any of the variables, one could review the data and make any number of inaccurate claims as to what the data truly shows.  Reviewing the numbers, the most dangerous community, East Palo Alto, spends the largest percentage of their budget on police while the safest community, Portola Valley, spends the least.  Clearly the extra police are directly responsible for the additional crimes.  Or, perhaps it is the extra horses per capita in Portola Valley that are responsible for the lower crime rate and all any community needs to do to lower its crime rate is require its citizens to tether horses in the front yard.

What is sad is that people who, for the own selfish reasons, want to get rid of the police department must intentionally mislead the community to achieve their goal.  The truth is simply that SMC Sheriff’s Deputies make about 10% more than their counterparts in the Half Moon Bay Police Dept. and the only way to get any savings out of dismantling the police department is to decrease service.

I agree that it would be a mistake to think that this is totally an apples-to-apples comparison. But it is still a worthwhile analysis.

Part of the problem that smaller cities face is that the cost of necessary overhead (e.g. the Chief’s salary) is spread over few officers, and over fewer taxpayers.  That’s one reason that outsourcing looks attractive as a generic strategy. Also, an outsourcing model will provide you with access to resources and career paths for officers that a small police force cannot.

I haven’t looked at the issue closely enough to say. But these are some of the considerations that would go into any outsourcing decision. But it’s not strictly a dollars-and-cents decision, either.

Mayor Naomi Patridge has made a big deal out of the idea that the City cannot afford to pay for the 21-acre park parcel. The cost of the park parcel is $3.1 million—a one-time expense that could generate huge recreation benefits to families and children for many generations to come.

Currently, the City’s Police Department is set to absorb about $5 million in the coming year alone—-nearly one-half of the City’s entire spending budget. This is up from about $2.5 million per year only five years ago.

Regardless of whether you think that Police Services should be outsourced or not, the City still needs to take a hard look at the way it is spending money—especially since spending exceeds revenues.

The TOT revenue windfall from the Ritz Carlton coming online in the year 2000 has now been completely absorbed into the City’s permanent cost structure (salaries and benefits).

The City is considering an increase in the TOT tax rate to address the budget shortfall, but even if that passes, it will not eliminate the structural deficit.

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for your comment. I am the author of the graphs and would like to make a brief comment.

You label my charts “simplistic” and I’d have to agree. If you go over to Montara Fog ( where I originally published these charts you’ll see that the headline is “First Approximation” and that the first paragraph reads:

“When I was in grad school my professors, mostly economists and policy wonk types, loved to use the phrase “first approximation.” First approximation this, first approximation that. It was used to refer to everything from an outright guess (without even the pretense of analysis) to a sort-of first pass look at a question, both to get a sense of what the answer might be and to see whether the result was interesting enough to warrant a deeper look. This second sort of “first approximation,” the kind I am utilizing here, doesn’t pretend to be highly refined—it isn’t. It also doesn’t pretend to be error-free. No doubt corrections can be made.”

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s go a little deeper:

To what would you ascribe the rapid increase in HMB’s police budget?

Now that the department’s budget has doubled do you detect any change in public safety?

If I made a third chart that showed “% growth in police budget” over the past few years where do you think (make your best guess) HMB would end up?

The purpose of my charts was not to provide a definitive answer but to instead start a discussion. I would love to have that discussion.

—Darin (Montara Fog)

PS I don’t remember if I passed 7th grade science class or not—what’s your best guess…

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past month is an increase in tickets being issued.  I have seen an increase in frequency in ticketing cars on Main Street,  even in the less traveled section like the 700-800 blocks.

I have also seen the motorcycle cop looking to trap people for frivolous things like not coming to a full stop at Main and the Ford dealer or laying in wait at Poplar on HWY 1 getting people who don’t cut their speed within 200 feet of the lower speed sign.

If the Police Department has officers with nothing else to do but spend time harassing people for trivial things,  perhaps their staff is too large.

Or maybe the City is looking at the Police as a revenue source to offset its huge legal fees.

Our town depends heavily on tourists and having too many officers with nothing else to do but be dedicated to ticketing people is of no benefit to anyone. 

If the City needs to cut some expense,  perhaps they should look closely at what some of these officers do.

Steven Hyman

Dennis Loubal provides an excellent, clear-eyed look at how statistics can be confusing. While I know little about the police issue, and therefore don’t intend to weigh in on it, I love a clear, rational argument.

Then he spoils it by saying, “What is sad is that people who, for the own selfish reasons, want to get rid of the police department must intentionally mislead the community to achieve their goal.”

What seems really sad to me is how every discussion in HMB always seems to descend into personal invective. I don’t know to whom Mr. Loubal refers when he says “people who,” but I have to presume he is speaking of the original poster, Darin Boville. I see no evidence that Mr. Boville “wants to get rid of the police department,” nor that he wants to “intentionally mislead” anyone, nor even that he is “selfish.” I see only that he took the time to provide a couple of factual graphs as a starting point for a discussion.

Wouldn’t it be great if all discussions, disagreements, and arguments here in HMB and on this site could be conducted at the level of Mr. Loubal’s first five paragraphs, and not at the level of his final one?