PORTLAND – The union representing Portland’s police officers says the city is proposing to cut the force at a time when calls for service have been climbing sharply.

City officials, however, say staffing changes and grants will result in more officers patrolling Portland’s mainland, where the vast majority of the calls occur.

The Police Benevolent Association has sent a letter to city councilors criticizing the proposed police budget, saying it could prolong response time and hamper the department’s ability to protect the public.

“The indisputable facts are that if the cuts are realized, police officer positions will be at their lowest since 2005 while calls for service and crime continue to increase,” said PBA President David Argitis. “The inevitable result will be a decrease in our ability to control crime and keep our city safe.”

City Manager Joe Gray, grappling with another challenging budget year, has proposed a $13.2 million police budget, $362,000 more than this year. The budget would eliminate five vacant positions and pay for 124 officers.

However, the city has grant money that will pay for six community policing officers. In addition, the city has signed a grant-funded contract for a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency detective. That position is dedicated to the MDEA and does not count toward the department’s authorized strength.

The net result is an increase of two officers, with patrol teams also benefiting from the reassignment to the mainland of four officers who had been stationed on Peaks Island, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

The fact that there are fewer officers working now than there were two years ago is a function of the national and state economies, she said.

“There’s been a staffing reduction all throughout the city as a result of revenue losses because of the national recession,” Clegg said.

Assistant Chief Michael Sauschuck said the budget proposal means some of Chief James Craig’s initiatives will go unfulfilled, such as a new special-problems unit to focus on gangs and drugs, and a marine services unit.

“We think we can still continue to provide service for our city and citizens. We just think we can do it better with higher staffing,” Sauschuck said.

The department has 162 positions, which includes supervisors and command staff.

The actual number of officers working at a given time varies because of retirements and transfers to other agencies, usually between eight and 11 per year, Argitis said.

He criticized the city’s plan to use federal grants intended to expand policing in the city to offset budget cuts. The creation of six dedicated community policing officers won’t help keep up with the calls for service handled by patrol teams, he said.

Calls for service result whenever dispatch receives a call for an officer, to handle everything from shootings to intoxicated people passing out.

Those calls have increased from 69,482 in 2005 to 83,704 in 2009, or 20 percent, Argitis said.

Finance Director Ellen Sanborn used different numbers when presenting the budget to the City Council’s finance committee April 8. She said calls for service were more than 92,000 in fiscal year 2007, dropped to a little more than 85,000 the following year and fell again to the 83,704 level in 2009.

Calls do seem to be getting more serious, Sauschuck said. Robberies, he noted, increased 13 percent from fiscal year 2008 to last year. Burglaries increased 12 percent but were down slightly from fiscal year 2007.

However, total violent crime was down from 2008 to 2009, and property crimes remained at the same level.

Sauschuck said that although it’s the City Council’s responsibility to set the budget, it’s appropriate for the PBA and others in the department to express their views so the council has complete information in making its decision.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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