Falling economy could result in rising crime | SteamboatToday.com

Falling economy could result in rising crime

Falling economy affects law enforcement budgets

Melinda Dudley

— Economic downturn is poised to increase demand for local public safety and human service agencies in the face of stagnant or decreasing funding and staffing.

“When money gets tight, it can spur a number of a problems,” Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said. “We expect domestic violence to increase, thefts to increase, alcohol-related incidents to increase.”

Service calls to law enforcement agencies increase for a number of social reasons relating to economic downturn. In particular, there tends to be more domestic violence and family problems, Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall said.

“People who are really strapped monetarily might do something criminal they might not otherwise do,” Wall said.

The post-9/11 economy is the most recent example Steamboat Springs law officials have to anticipate how current economic troubles may affect crime in the community.

In 2002 – which Rae characterized as a “flat” year, with minimal increases in sales tax revenue and tourists – Steamboat Springs saw a 9.1 percent increase in serious reportable crimes.

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The national average increase that year was 1.3 percent. The measure includes crimes such as homicide, sex offenses, robbery, assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.

In 2002, Steamboat saw a 37 percent increase in assault cases and an 18 percent increase in reported thefts compared with the previous year, Rae said. In 2003, the numbers decreased.

“Based on what the city experienced the last time we went through something like this, it’s an indication of what’s going to happen now,” Steamboat Springs Public Safety Director J.D. Hays said.

“If Steamboat sees fewer visitors because of economic downturn, yet our crime increases : like it did historically, it’ll be interesting to analyze 2009,” Rae said.

The numbers game

Exactly how Steamboat will be affected by the economy remains to be seen, though city and Routt County governments already are scrambling to balance their budgets in the face of projected deficits.

Since the Steamboat Springs City Council directed staff to find a way to balance a $1.9 million projected deficit earlier this month, city officials have proposed everything from hiring freezes and layoffs, to ending subsidies for facilities such as Howelsen Hill and slashing community support spending. Routt County also is facing a budget crunch because of slumping revenues.

In September, the Routt County Board of Commissioners instituted a hiring freeze for the Sheriff’s Office, and commissioners have been battling with Wall regarding the department’s projected $100,000 budget overage for 2008.

“My belief is that what we do is non-discretionary,” Wall said. “I believe public safety, law enforcement, fire, should not be cut in the same way as every other department.

“We need the same amount of people, regardless of the economy,” he continued.

Despite Steamboat’s growth, the number of sworn officers budgeted for the police department has remained nearly stagnant throughout the past decade, from 24 in 1998 to 26 for the current year. Two of those positions, however, are vacant and unlikely to be filled, given the city’s budget struggles.

In the meantime, calls for service have been increasing several percentage points each year, and they are poised to top 11,000 in 2008.

“We’ve handled that with the same number of people,” Rae said.

In the same period of time, the city of Steamboat Springs has increased its full-time employees from 137 in 1998, to 245 today, Rae said.

“You’re adding 108 employees to zero police officers,” he said.

“We understand everybody is suffering. We’ve always been conservative in our budget,” Hays said. “But we’ve been doing a lot more with a lot less for years than what’s going on in the rest of the city.”

The police department sought to hire four additional officers next year, a request the city denied. Future staffing is especially a concern given large residential developments being planned, such as Steamboat 700, increasing the people and area the department serves, Rae said.

“If it doesn’t catch up, what that looks like is a reduction of service, longer response times, and less traffic enforcement,” Rae said. “Officers have less time for self-initiated efforts, follow-up and crime prevention efforts.”

Mental health

Although referrals are not tracked in such a way that they can directly tie the economy to the number of people the center treats, it seems that Steamboat Mental Health sees more people and uses more of its resources during tough economic times, director Tom Gangel said.

“We do find that people who suffer from mental illness find economic hardships exacerbate their problem,” Gangel said.

Most mental illnesses are not caused by the state of the economy itself, but the stressors it triggers can worsen existing conditions, or push people with a predisposition over the edge, Gangel said.

Mental health care providers usually see more cases of depression and related mood disorders, and they have a greater caseload for couples and family counseling, Gangel said.

“People don’t come in and say, ‘This is my problem: The economy is driving me nuts,'” Gangel said. “People say, ‘My depression is getting worse.'”

“They do identify it real quick when we try to negotiate a fee,” he said.

Services at Steamboat Mental Health are paid for by a variety of funds, including self-pay, private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as funds from the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County, Gangel said.

“We know those are going to go down this year, and that’s how we support the folks who aren’t covered by any of these other catchments,” Gangel said.

Residents of resort communities such as Steamboat face an extra barrier, because many programs that can assist with paying for mental health services have income restrictions assigned at the state level, Gangel said. People who are what Gangel called “resort indigents” may not meet the state criteria because their salary would be high enough to meet their basic needs on the Front Range – but not here, he said.

“It’s not about having enough money to provide what you want for yourself, it’s (about) not being able to provide what you need for yourself,” Gangel said. “We get close to those lines.”