Police service at the neighborhood level remains a top priority of the Salt Lake City Council, and it wants to make sure that's reflected in the city budget.

Mayor Ralph Becker is proposing to boost funding for police by about $1.9 million in fiscal year 2008-09, but only one sworn officer would be added to the force.

Becker's budget calls for "significant changes in department staffing," according to a staff report, adding eight positions and eliminating seven.

Though the net result is the addition of one full-time officer, council members expressed concern during a work session Tuesday that positions slated to be eliminated could reduce police presence in neighborhoods.

"Anything that begins to degrade the ability of neighborhoods to interact with the police and vice versa begins to affect the overall service," Councilman Eric Jergensen said.

New positions proposed for the police department would increase staffing in the crime lab by four (one supervisor and three technicians); cover costs of two formerly grant-funded High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area positions in the investigative bureau; add a civilian public information officer, ultimately allowing two sworn officers to return to the field; and add a parking enforcement captain.

Proposed staff reductions are an already vacant police captain position; a vacant intelligence specialist position in the department's Fusion Center; the reassignment of a public safety facilities project manager; and civilian layoffs of two crime analysis data information specialists, a crime analysis manager and a graphic artist.

Police Chief Chris Burbank acknowledged that the reductions could negatively affect neighborhood police operations.

"The question now is to what degree those operations will be affected," Jergensen said. "Will it take officers off the street? Does it negatively affect the ability to solve crime in neighborhoods? That's something we have to address."

Jergensen seemed most concerned about the staff reduction in the Fusion Center, which is designed to enhance police interaction with the community and response to neighborhood problems.

"One place not to cut (funding) is in neighborhood support," he said.

The City Council opted not to address during its police budget discussions the controversial issue of increasing rates for city employees participating in the take-home vehicle program.

The mayor's proposed budget calls for employees using city vehicles to drive to and from work to pay 30 percent more in the 2008-09 fiscal year. Employees who live outside the city, including police officers, would pay between $2.40 and $16.80 more every two weeks under the plan, depending on distance traveled, to help offset the rising cost of fuel.

Though police would be directly affected by the change, the City Council decided to address the issue at a work session next week when the city's fleet service fund is discussed.

The proposed move has been criticized by Tom Gallegos, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, who said he was "completely blind-sided by this revelation."

Gallegos sent a letter to Becker last week in response to the proposal, saying the decision negatively impacts morale and finances of police officers.

"To have this proposal placed underhanded in the budget without either the police department's or police association's input or knowledge is unfathomable," the letter reads.

Jergensen said he's not sold on the idea of rate increases for employees taking city vehicles home.

"I think there are ways to maybe approach it to reduce or negate completely the additional cost," he said. "If there's a way for us to save money on gasoline, whether it's the police or any other department in the city, we ought to explore it."

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