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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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7/26/2008 5:07:00 PM
Steep crime lab fees could be imposed
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A last-minute deal to balance the state budget could force local police to choose between laying off workers or not pursuing certain crimes.

The budget, which Gov. Janet Napolitano helped craft, cuts the state allocation for the Department of Public Safety crime lab by more than half. It also directs the agency to make up that difference by billing police, fire and sheriff's departments and medical examiner's offices a total of $7.8 million for lab work that, until now, was done for free.

And because the budget deal was not made public until late June, it also came after cities and counties already had adopted their own budget -- budgets which never counted on a new bill from DPS.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever said Wednesday that goes back on what essentially was a promise made when tax dollars were used to set up the crime lab in the first place that the lab would provide services to police agencies throughout the state.

"I think it's a little outrageous,' said Dever, whose agency would have to pay $137,000 this year under a proposal crafted by DPS. More to the point, he said it could hamper crime fighting efforts.

"The dangerous part of course is that law enforcement agencies may be in a position because of cost to have to kind of 'cherry pick' which cases they're going to send up to the lab for analysis,' Dever said. "A lot of potentially useful information and lab analysis that we get that could lead to other convictions down the road is going to be lost.'

Flagstaff Police Chief Brent Cooper, whose agency would need to come up with more than $233,000, said he was particularly upset that no one bothered to tell police chiefs and sheriffs this was even being considered. Now, Cooper said, his department is going to have to figure out how to come up with the cash without scrapping investigations.

"I do pledge to the victims of our community that we will do everything we can within our power to make sure that their cases are processed properly,' he said.

"We're not in favor of doing this,' said Deputy DPS Director Pennie Gillette-Stroud. But she said her agency was mandated to pass on that $7.8 million cut because the state's economy has resulted in not enough tax revenues to support all government services.

"There had to be a way to be able to make attempts to balance the budget for the state,' she said.

Napolitano echoed that theme, citing the $2 billion gap between anticipated revenues and expenses.

"The pain is going to have to be spread in many ways,' she said.

"In an ideal situation, sure, you would like to provide those services free of charge,' the governor continued. "But we weren't dealing with an ideal situation.'

Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the Apache Junction police department, called the more than $121,000 hit to his department "devastating.'

"I don't know where the money will come from,' he said. "There could be layoffs or less city services in public works, the library or public safety.'

And then there's the option of simply ordering less lab work.

"We can't tell a family that their family member is less important than anyone else,' Kelly said. "It may be a question of `Do we send for blood?' [or] `Do we go for latent [prints]?'

Even Tucson Police Department, which has its own crime lab, will be hit to the tune of about $91,000 because it sends blood and urine samples to DPS for drug analysis. Sgt. Fabian Pacheco said his agency will have to find the money somewhere to ensure that all cases are prosecuted.

"I don't think victims should have to pay the price' of the budget crunch, he said.

Clint Norred, an officer with the Yuma Police Department said the question of what to do next will depend on exactly how DPS structures its billing.

One approach is based on the amount of lab work each agency sent to DPS last year. In Yuma's case that would be more than $112,000.

But another option would be the a la carte approach, with agencies paying for each procedure requested.

For example, DPS would charge $87 to analyze a blood sample for alcohol and provide the necessary court testimony. Lab work for "date rape' drugs would cost $330 each, with biological screening running between $125 and $500 per case.

Norred said if that becomes the billing method his department will be shopping around to see if a private lab can do the work cheaper.

And Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said his agency, facing a potential $354,000 bill, may follow the lead of Mesa and Scottsdale police who have set up their own crime labs.

Arpaio also pointed out that DPS will be operating a new statewide photo radar system which Gov. Janet Napolitano has predicted should bring in $90 million during its first partial year of operation. Those anticipated revenues were not considered in balancing the budget.

"Why doesn't DPS take some of the money they're going to make with photo radar enforcement and put it to this?' he asked. "Why now mess with law enforcement and make them pay for crime analysis?'

The change affects not just police but any agency that needs lab work. That includes the Pima County Attorney's Office which sometimes requests DNA or fingerprint analysis.

"We understand that the state is having a tight year,' said David Berkman, the agency's chief criminal deputy. "But we're having a tight year with our budget.'

Berkman noted, though, that the anticipated bill for his agency is less than $8,000, something he said it will be able to absorb.

John Leptich of Tribune Newspapers contributed to this report.

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