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Budget handcuffs cops

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As tax dollars dwindle and city coffers contract, Missoula's municipal money managers are calling for across-the-board belt tightening. The end result will continue to leave local emergency responders short-staffed, says Police Chief Mark Muir.

"This year has been a real challenge for us," Muir says.

In an effort to beef up budget reserves, Missoula number crunchers asked department heads citywide last month to whittle 2.8 percent off of their annual expenses. The move will save about $1.25 million, better buffering the city from economic challenges going forward, says Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender.

"It's sort of a stop-gap measure," Bender says.

But for the Missoula Police Department, the shrinking balance sheet means trimming $305,000 off this year's existing budget in addition to a 3.7 percent cut going into the fiscal year. Even with federal stimulus money offsetting some of the cuts, Muir says the cumulative effect leaves him short two members of the department's 102-person staff.

"It has really just kind of destroyed our traffic enforcement efforts," Muir says. "We also have to be a little more selective about the calls we go on."

In addition to spending less time policing traffic violations, law enforcement is adjusting how it responds to non-emergency calls. For instance, the department is taking reports for petty theft reported after the fact over the phone instead of in person.

The department is making due, but Muir still worries his officers are foregoing precautionary measures, like calling for backup, which makes them more vulnerable to confrontation and, in turn, injury.

"They try to make up time by not necessarily exercising the normal safety precautions," Muir says. "That's always a concern."

To offset cuts, Muir is examining revenue-reaping options. One idea floated involves charging citizens for police activities that go beyond traditional peacekeeping, like investigating fender- benders.

Muir says the public is just as safe as it's ever been. But as the budget shrinks, law enforcement must continue juggling its finances smartly.

"We're struggling to do it," he says. "We're asking for a little bit more from everybody."

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