Pickerington will enlist a state agency to audit the city's police department to identify options for enhancing operations, as well as determining appropriate funding.

Pickerington will enlist a state agency to audit the city's police department to identify options for enhancing operations, as well as determining appropriate funding.

Pickerington City Council members agreed unanimously Jan. 18 to have the Ohio Auditor's Office conduct a "performance audit" of the Pickerington Police Department.

According to city officials, the $24,500 audit will examine the efficiency and effectiveness of operations within the department, which accounts for the city's largest budget expense.

The project will compare the Pickerington Police Department's operations and funding to those of similarly sized departments throughout the state to help determine if it's receiving adequate funding and to provide city leaders with options for enhancing operations and achieving greater efficiency and effectiveness.

"Basically, what a performance audit would boil down to is a cost-analysis of like-sized municipalities," said Chris Schornack, Pickerington's finance director.

Schornack, council members and city manager Bill Vance endorsed the audit as the city seeks to determine if the police department is receiving adequate funding.

While its $4.2-million budget this year represents the largest appropriation from Pickerington's overall $7.7-million operating budget, the department didn't see an increase in funding from 2010. It also hasn't added to its police officer ranks for six consecutive years.

Following a council budget hearing last October, Pickerington Police Chief Mike Taylor said his department has 26 officers, which is well below the FBI's national standards of 2.4 officers per 1,000 people living in a community.

"There are 17,500 people in the city, without counting apartment units," Taylor said then. "Even by that standard, we should have 38 officers."

According to an agreement with the state auditor's office, the audit will be conducted under federally accepted government auditing standards. Similar public safety audits have been conducted in recent years for the Ohio cities of Seven Hills, North Canton, Lakewood, Rossford, Greenville and Garfield Heights.

Pickerington's audit will examine the police department's financial history, budget and future funding levels, including an analysis of revenues and expenditures, and an examination of operating cost ratios and projections of its future financial condition.

Another section of the audit will explore the department's salaries, benefits and collective bargaining agreements. Although the department received no funding increase in 2011 from 2010, officers in the police union were able to negotiate 2.5-percent wage increases this year.

Other areas of the audit will examine police department operations, which will assess staffing levels and makeup, the department's organization and administrative structure, functions and programs offered by the department and interagency relationships, communications practices and community relations.

Additionally, the audit will evaluate the department's vehicle fleet to determine if it has enough vehicles and if they are being maintained properly. No funding was provided this year for additional department vehicles.

"The audit can provide a few different points of view, financially," Vance said. "I think feedback from (the audit) would be extremely valuable."

In addition to analyzing the department itself, some city officials hope the audit will show residents the need for new revenue streams so more police officers can be hired and more vehicles can be purchased.

Councilman Jeff Fix said the city failed to properly educate voters about the city's financial constraints and needs when a November 2008 levy failed by a nearly 2-to-1 count. Had it been approved, it would have raised income taxes from 1 percent to 2 percent for those who work in Pickerington but live outside the city, That levy would have generated an additional $3-million in revenue for Pickerington.

The audit, Fix said, could provide legitimacy to a possible future push for an income tax increase or police levy.

"I think if we're trying to gain credibility with our citizens, which we clearly lacked a couple years ago, this is extremely important," he said.

Less than two years after polling residents about their willingness to pay more in taxes and their satisfaction with city services, Pickerington will commission a new survey to see if expectations or positions have changed.

Pickerington City Council's finance committee, which consists of the entire council, voted 4-2 on Jan. 18 to spend $12,000 for a new citizen survey.

Councilman Brian Wisniewski was out of town and didn't vote on the matter.

As it did in May 2009, the city will hire Governing Dynamic LLC, a Columbus-based public policy consulting firm, to conduct the survey.

It will be financed with money that was set aside for contracts with Governing Dynamic in 2010, but which was never spent. Company officials said they need at least 300 fully completed surveys and they expect to place more than 1,000 random telephone calls in order to find the needed number of residents who will answer all the questions.

"This is all about intelligence-gathering," said Brett Sciotto, Governing Dynamic president and chief executive officer and a Hilliard City Council member. "It's about public expectations and plotting where you want to go."

The survey is expected to be conducted within the next month.

As was the case in 2009, when the city spent $18,500 for Governing Dynamic to conduct the survey and lead a day-and-a-half planning session based on its results, city officials hope to determine what level of city services residents expect.

Once again, the survey also is expected to gauge residents' willingness to support an increase in taxes to maintain or enhance services, as well as police department personnel and vehicles.

"My goal would be to instill confidence in our constituents that we are good at managing money," Mayor Mitch O'Brien said.

Council members Cristie Hammond and Gavin Blair opposed contracting with Governing Dynamic for the new survey.

"I think we could probably find other ways to find the same information," Hammond said.

Blair said he believes the new survey won't yield different results from the 2009 survey, and spending $12,000 for it is a "misuse" of public funds.

He also opposed the move because the city didn't bid out the project to see if it could get a lower price or better range of services.

"We never once bid this out," Blair said. "I think we should bid everything out.

"We did a survey almost two years ago that told us a lot of what this is going to tell us. I think we know what the voters told us: 'Do more with less.'"

The 2009 survey followed the failure of a November 2008 income tax levy that would have raised taxes from 1 to 2 percent for those working in the city but living outside of Pickerington. It would have generated an additional $3-million in revenue for the city, but was defeated by a near 2-to-1 margin.

When polled in spring 2009, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed the November 2008 tax levy, and 32 percent said they generally oppose income tax increases. Twelve percent of respondents said they pay enough taxes already and another 12 percent said they can't afford more taxes.

Asked if they would support the same income tax increase if it were placed on the ballot again, 63 percent said no, 32 percent said yes and 5 percent either didn't know or didn't answer the question.

Pickerington officials hope attitudes have changed since that time, as they look for new revenue sources for a city that hasn't increased income taxes since they were originally established at 1 percent in 1976.

Last month, city council passed a $7.7-million operating budget for 2011. It represented no increase from 2010, and for the sixth consecutive year did not allow for an increase in police officers.

The new survey could examine whether residents would be more willing to support a new police levy than an income tax increase. Fifty-seven percent of those polled in 2009 said they'd be more likely to support an income tax increase if they knew the city would be forced to reduce funding to the Pickerington Police Department in 2010.

"Potentially, a survey could seek input from our citizens as to the level of police department services they would like to see," city manager Bill Vance said. " Over the last couple budgets, I think it's become apparent to all that the city is at a financial crossroads."