St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith described his department Wednesday as "very healthy" even while facing a $2.2 million budget cut in 2012 that will mean eliminating the police band and selling eight Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The chief's most notable statistic: Nine months into the year, the city has recorded only four homicides, a number Smith called unheard of. The city had 17 homicides last year and 15 in 2009. Minneapolis has had 24 this year.

Smith attributed the drop in killings and overall violent crime in part to intervention, prevention and mentoring efforts by the department and the gang unit. That is the "social justice work" the chief is seeking to protect in the budget.

At a 90-minute budget hearing that included respectful give-and-take with City Council members, Smith said he sought to make cuts where they would have the least effect on residents.

The council is holding weekly hearings to review Mayor Chris Coleman's proposed 2012 budget. The council can make changes before adopting the final budget in December. Council members want to tweak Smith's budget, but sounded supportive of him overall.

The department has a current force of 592 officers and is authorized for 610. Smith said he will continue to keep 11 vacancies open to save money. The bulk of the cuts will come from these staff reductions.

One disputed cut is Smith's proposed elimination of squad cars for officers who voluntarily live rent-free in public housing. Officers park the cars at their apartments to provide a police presence.

While the visibility is a crime deterrent, Smith said, the cars are the oldest in the fleet and routine maintenance alone would cost $5,000.

Council Member Pat Harris said he would like to preserve the program. "You take these cars away, you diminish the quality of the whole program unless you're going to have an officer wearing a uniform grilling burgers," Harris said.

But Council Member Dave Thune said he would rather cut this program than some others.

Council Member Russ Stark said that when the council is uncomfortable with a $5,000 cut, it "says a lot about where we're at."

The council members didn't have a problem with the elimination of the motorcycles because Smith told them that when the same officers are in squad cars during inclement months, they write more traffic citations. Smith said the eight motorcycles should net $48,000.

Smith said he's hopeful that private donations can keep afloat the police band, which is mostly staffed by retirees and plays at memorial services.

The chief proposed increasing the towing fee for roughly 6,000 vehicles taken each year to the city impound lot from $55 to $70. The fee hasn't been raised in 15 years.

Other cost savings include oil changes on investigative vehicles at 5,000 miles instead of 3,000 and a soon-to-be-adopted no-idling policy for squad cars.

Despite cuts, the department is adding technology.

Ninety of the 110 squad cars will have cameras by the end of 2012. Smith said the cameras are so advanced they will download video as they drive past checkpoints. Minneapolis already has cameras in most police cars. The footage is often used in criminal and civil cases.

Smith touted the 190 stationary cameras already up along University Avenue from Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul and along the Mississippi River. The cameras have been effective in thwarting crime and tracking offenders, especially those involved in gun crimes, he said. The cameras will save money over time and are critical to the Central Corridor light-rail line.

"They're getting bad people off the street," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson