City officials worry that public safety expenses, which are mostly driven by tourism, are consuming the city’s general budget at an unsustainable rate and depleting coffers intended to pay for streets and parks.
2024 Budget Allotment on Public Safety
The city’s general fund earnings for the upcoming fiscal year, which totals $57 million, will be used for public safety expenses to the tune of around $45.2 million, or nearly 79 percent of that total. According to officials, the city is considering how to address the issue with money from a 15% tax on hotel rooms and rental properties. Last year, the Park Board of Trustees, which collects taxes for the city, brought in $29 million, based on the reports of The Daily News.
And it looks like the newly elected board in charge of the park board has more amenable ears for city leaders. Only $6 million, $4.7 million, and $3.9 million, respectively, are set aside for infrastructure, streets, and parks in the city’s projected 2024 budget.
If the estimates are going to be real, the percentage allocated to public safety will have increased from around 63% of the general fund last year. According to officials, the island receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, mostly in the summer but also more frequently throughout the year. According to City Manager Brian Maxwell, Galveston’s police department has a $27.5 million budget for the year, while the fire department needs around $15 million. According to Maxwell, they overwhelm public safety budgets in cities with comparable populations.
According to Maxwell, most towns with 50,000 population wouldn’t require as many police officers as the city’s 168 officers, and most of those communities don’t have full-time fire departments. And Maxwell noted that outfitting officers is not inexpensive. According to information from the city manager’s office, it costs the city close to $7,600 to fully outfit one police officer, including radios costing $2,048, Tasers costing $1,342, body armor costing $950, body cams costing $535, and Glock 22 handguns costing $350.
But the biggest cost is keeping officers on the job. Salaries make up the majority of your costs for public safety, according to Maxwell. Galveston has only 50,000 full-time residents, but every day, an additional 25,000 commuters enter the city to work, primarily at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
On summer weekends, the number can increase to as much as 250,000 or 300,000. Although local officials claim to be positive that increases in public safety expenses are caused by services offered to tourists, they struggle to put a dollar amount on the burden. According to Maxwell, that might alter shortly.
“We’re working on that right now because that’s a big question,” Maxwell added. He added that they incur a lot of expenses relating to this that we may not always classify as tourist expenses. They merely become part of our overall expenses.
According to Deputy City Manager Dan Buckley, an officer may write a ticket for a local, a visitor, a worker who lives elsewhere, or a person with a second property on the island. To get additional money from the park board, the city will need to monitor the costs of public safety differently for residents and tourists, Maxwell suggested.
The idea of using hotel occupancy tax for city operations has long been one of the most contentious issues on the island, with disagreements between previous city councils and park board trustees. According to Maxwell, there is no money from the city or park board; all of it is the property of the people of Galveston, he claimed.
But Maxwell added, “We’re extremely aware of the regulations about hotel occupancy tax. “And hotel occupancy tax funds cannot be used to complement regular operations. You must therefore exercise extreme caution in the situation.
Gaining access to better data will allow the city to determine which costs related to public safety are borne by residents and which by tourists. Galveston’s taxpayers shouldn’t bear the burden, according to Buckley. There is a specific percentage you are willing to accept, but anything above that represents real expenses for Galveston. Taxpayers are currently footing the bill.
Hotels Fees as Source of Expenses for Public Safety
Jason Hardcastle, the new chairman of the park board and a former member of the city council, told The Daily News that he was open to coming up with inventive methods to use the hotel occupancy fee to lessen the burden that tourism has on the island’s public safety budget. I do think it is a pressure on public safety, without a question, because of the increase of people on the island throughout the summer and because of activities and vacation weekends, said Hardcastle.
State legislation specifies 11 legitimate applications for hotel occupancy tax, but none of them permit the levy to be used for public safety. The park board might use the money to create a multi-use structure, such as the new headquarters for the Galveston Beach Patrol once the city demolishes the Stewart Beach Pavilion at 201 Seawall Boulevard, which is one of the 11 uses listed that the city currently pays for or may in the future. According to Hardcastle, the tourism sector benefits the community considerably more than it does harm.
Hardcastle noted the abundance of eateries, entertainment options, amusement parks, and premium attractions that are absent from communities of comparable proportions. Nevertheless, Hardcastle said he is constantly searching for methods to lessen the financial strain tourists place on the city’s general fund. According to Hardcastle, the trustees and employees of the park board are prepared to collaborate with the city to develop answers.