Difficult budget forces cuts in city travel and training

The city is asking departments to keep expenses to a minimum
Sunday, September 19, 2010 | 6:46 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Cutting travel and training budgets isn't as easy as it might sound, officials in three city departments said, but they're doing what they can to meet a request by the Columbia City Council to keep such spending to a minimum.

The city's electric utility, followed by the police and information technology departments, proposed the largest travel and training budgets for fiscal 2011, at $197,005, $127,643 and $98,950, respectively. The council is pushing for cuts as large as 50 percent, but the Columbia Police Department and Columbia Water and Light say 15 percent probably is as much of a cut as they can take.

Regulations require training for police

The police department would have a hard time cutting travel and training by half, spokeswoman Jessie Haden said. Police in Missouri must comply with the Peace Officer Standards and Training Program, which licenses officers.

Police must have 48 hours of training every three years, and only 24 of those hours can be internal training, Sgt. John Worden said. The remaining 24 hours of training have to be acquired from outside trainers, he said.

Worden said the department probably can handle a cut of 10 percent to 15 percent.

“Can’t say it’s not going to have any impact, but I think it will be manageable,” Worden said.

One way to reduce costs is to have MU's Law Enforcement Training Institute conduct workshops at the Columbia Police Department's training center. Worden said Columbia would get free student spots in exchange.

Detective John Logan and Juvenile Detective Steve McCormack recently attended a workshop in investigative background work at the North Kansas City Police Department. They explained the value of training and worried about the impact of cutbacks.

Logan has been with the Columbia Police Department for 12 years and joined the Major Crimes Unit in March.

“One of the responsibilities the Major Crimes Unit has is investigative background checks of potential employees,” Logan said. “We need employees of high moral (standards) and integrity.”

The training taught officers how to ask the right questions, how to find people in a candidate’s life not listed on his or her application and how to use online resources, Logan said.

“The training was very important — it would be very difficult without it,” Logan said, explaining that he now can do background checks must faster.

The registration fees for the two-day training were waived for Logan and McCormack due to a reciprocal agreement, Worden said. The two detectives each received up to $37 per day for meals, and they shared a hotel room for one night at approximately $80 a night. They used a department car to drive to North Kansas City.

McCormack, who has 14 years of experience, joined the Major Crimes Unit in July. He said he's familiar with background checks, but appreciated learning about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I learned about questions we can ask by law and what questions we can’t ask by law,” McCormack said.

McCormack also has attended three internal training sessions on forensic evidence in the past year. A couple of years ago, he attended training regarding crimes against children, including sexual abuse.

“(The training) really benefited me, made me a better interviewer,” McCormack said.

In law enforcement, training is essential because laws, society and people's behaviors are always changing, Logan said. Worden, though, said he recognizes that saving money on travel and training will free up cash for other things.

“I certainly like the idea of adding another police officer,” Worden said.

IT department expects 50 percent cut

Robert Simms, director of information technology for the city, expects his travel and training budget will be chopped in half to $49,476.

“Obviously we would prefer not to have cuts, but the Information Technology Department doesn’t have any certifications that other departments have to budget for,” Simms said. “Our people have to justify a bit more because there is less money."

Information Technology normally sends two to three people to large conferences so that they can attend different breakout sessions. Now, they'll have to be pickier, Simms said. They also will have to send fewer people to Florida training sessions on the use of SunGard HTE, a software program that many city departments use for such things as payroll, utility payments and work orders.

Online training is an option, but it's less interactive, Simms said. 

Simms noted that computer training often happens in big cities, making it more expensive.

“Trainings are in Florida, California and Texas, that’s where you have to go," Simms said.

Simms said his department will do its best to make the cuts the City Council wants.

“We are in a deficit, a recession budget time,” Simms said. “We need to make cuts, and travel and training is one of those that can be cut. It’s an easy target. Everyone just thinks you can stop travel and training.”

Possible noncompliance fines limit Water and Light's flexibility

Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen said the electric utility probably is looking at a 15 percent cut in travel and training. Cutting that budget in half, he said, is just too much.

“Training aimed at certification at the federal, state and local level can’t be cut because of noncompliance fines,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen said he can trim training expenses by sending only one employee to industry meetings, such as the North American Electrical Reliability Council conference, where workers exchange ideas and discuss how new legislation will be enforced.

“I guess it is not critical, but (employees) do a better job when exposed, and it brings value,” Johnsen said.

The electric utility might have to do more in-house training. “The downside is that the employee has to take time out of work to train people,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen worries about cutting too much because turnover has forced the electric utility to hire a lot of new employees. That means it might take longer for workers to earn certifications, such as those required in order to assess how customers can reduce the cost of lighting.

“Training does have a long-term effect,” Johnsen said. “The impact might not be seen for a while...I hope these cuts won’t be forever type cuts."

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