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Cash-strapped cities balk at DPS crime lab fees

The Arizona Republic

The Arizona Republic

City officials across Arizona say they won’t pay the state for DNA testing and other crime-lab services because they are strapped for cash and believe the imposed fee is unconstitutional.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety was counting on collecting $2.5 million during this fiscal year from cities, towns and counties to provide them with forensic-evidence testing, which until now had been done for free.

Without that revenue stream, state officials say any vacated positions in the lab could go unfilled, deepening a case backlog and potentially delaying court cases. Until recently, the only other state charging for lab work had a backlog up to a year.

Now, only 4 percent of cases submitted to the crime lab in Arizona are more than 30 days old.

When a suspect in the “Chandler Rapist” case was arrested Jan. 12, it took the DPS less than 24 hours to match his DNA to samples found at three crime scenes. DPS officials said that because the program to collect lab fees from cities is new, it is unknown how much revenue will be collected.

“If we collect less than the $2.5 million in charges, we will have to entertain budget cuts, which would result in decreased service levels,” said Phil Case, DPS budget officer.

The fee proposal is expected to have little impact on Tucson’s two major law enforcement agencies, the city police department and the county’s sheriff’s department.

The Tucson Police Department has its own crime lab, and uses the DPS lab only for such things as testing blood for drugs and doing casts of shoe print and tire track impressions, said Sgt. Fabian Pacheco, a Tucson police spokesman, adding requests for that kind of lab work are seldom made.

Pima County Sheriff’s Bureau Chief Richard Kastigar said that for DNA testing, his department for years has contracted with a private lab.

DPS has talked to sheriffs’ authorities here about charging for lab work, Kastigar said, but has yet to send a bill.

Kastigar said his department will not pay for DPS lab work as sheriff’s officials and departmental lawyers think DPS is legally required to do the lab work without charge.

Further, Kastigar said, there is no accounting mechanism in place to allow local agencies to pay DPS lab fees.

Both Pacheco and Kastigar feel DPS’ lab fee proposal would hurt smaller law enforcement agencies in the metro area.

Other city and town officials around the state say they, too, are strapped financially and are unable to pay without hurting their basic services.


• Police in Douglas, a border town in southeastern Arizona, owe about $23,000 in lab fees. To pay the DPS would mean Douglas police could not hire an officer or buy a squad car, Chief Alberto Melis said. The department has four vacancies.

• Casa Grande owes nearly $52,000, or about the cost of a fully equipped patrol vehicle, Chief Robert Huddleston said.

• Sierra Vista police have been billed about $63,000. Chief Ken Kimmell said the only way to pay for the fees, “whether it’s $190,000 or $60,000, is to reduce our staffing, which really isn’t fair to our constituents.”

Melis of Douglas said, “For me to come up with this money, I’m going to have to do without something. In a profession where 95 percent of your cost is personnel, I might not be able to hire somebody.”

Funding crunch

State lawmakers in June cut $7.8 million from DPS funding in a last-minute effort to pass a balanced budget. In exchange, legislators stipulated for the first time that the DPS had the discretion to charge police, sheriffs and prosecutors who use the state lab.

In an attempt to reduce the burden to city and county agencies, the DPS tapped into dollars from gang and immigration enforcement programs. The remaining $2.5 million has been split based on the cases agencies submitted to the lab in the 2007-08 budget year, which ended June 30.

The actual agency cost for the DPS to process evidence from Casa Grande police in fiscal 2008 was about $288,000. The DPS initially prorated the city’s cost to about $161,000, which was later reduced to about $52,000. The Gilbert Police Department, which sent 2,253 cases to the state lab, owes about $115,000.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office sent in 1,115 cases and owes about $53,000.

Municipalities say it will be difficult to pay the fees. The concern is not just for this budget year but years to come.

“Although DPS was able to lower the amount significantly, we certainly don’t anticipate that happening next year,” Casa Grande’s Huddleston said.

Little recourse

The four DPS crime labs, which provide scientific analysis of evidence, crime-scene assistance and evidence storage, are expected to spend more than $20 million combined in the current fiscal year.

If agencies do not pay the $2.5 million, the DPS has little recourse.

Officials have assured the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, a voluntary membership organization of 90 incorporated municipalities, that they will continue to process cases even if municipalities do not pay.

“We don’t think we have a lot of options in that regard,” Case said.

“We would have to consider prioritizing the work of the agencies that pay while balancing this with public-safety needs.

“In other words, the work for an agency that didn’t pay would not grind to a complete halt, but it might slow somewhat.”

Adding to the lag would be the department’s potential inability to fill vacated positions.

State crime labs now process nearly double the amount of cases they received just six years ago. DPS records show agencies submitted 29,425 cases for testing in fiscal 1999-2000.

By fiscal 2006-07, that number had grown to 52,026.

The amount of evidence requiring blood/DNA testing had more than doubled since July 1999, to 4,435 cases from 2,194. Submissions for toxicology testing also grew about 156 percent in the same period.

To meet the demand, crime-lab staffing has increased by more than 50 positions to 158 full-time slots. As of Oct. 31, there were 10 vacancies for jobs including criminalist, lab tech and supervisor.

DPS officials expect the fee system to be permanent, or at the very least a multiyear feature.

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