As St. Paul's population grows and 911 calls increase, the St. Paul Police Department is stretched thin — and cutting five officer positions next year will only add to the burden, Chief Todd Axtell told City Council members Wednesday.

Mayor Melvin Carter's proposed 2020 budget would reduce the maximum number of sworn officers from 635 to 630, after staffing increases in both 2018 and 2019.

"Each year it gets busier and busier and busier, and 911 calls keep coming in," Axtell said. "It's simple math: more people living here, more people visiting here, we're going to have a higher demand for police services."

Between 2014 and 2018, Axtell said, the number of 911 calls in St. Paul rose 23%. In the past year, he said, there were more than 5,000 high-priority 911 calls that could not be dispatched within 30 seconds because there were not officers available to respond.

If the 2020 budget passes with the proposed police staffing cut, "there will be impact," Axtell said.

But some council members said they need more information — including a long-awaited police department staffing study and data on use-of-force incidents and complaints against officers — before making any decisions about the police budget.

"I understand that we feel like there is more crime happening. I also think we have to make these budget choices based on what our count of crimes happening is," said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson. "I just don't feel right now that we have the information to make actual, serious decisions."

Nelson said she supports eliminating the five sworn officer positions and noted that other city departments are being asked to make reductions, too.

Council members Jane Prince and Kassim Busuri said they're hesitant to sign off on cuts to the police department, given the level of gun violence in their East Side wards.

"With all due respect to Council Member Nelson, shots fired are up, and that has a dramatic impact on the neighborhoods that I represent, which are areas of concentrated poverty," Prince said. "Crime on the East Side isn't theoretical."

Carter's proposed budget includes more than $4 million in cuts across every city department. In addition to the five officer positions, the police department would lose about $230,000 allocated in 2019 for the mental health unit to partner with community organizations.

Axtell said he suggested the cut, which will move the funds from police to the fire department for a similar mental health co-responder model. The police department was supposed to use that money to contract with community organizations, which would hire health care workers to work with the department's mental health unit.

"We weren't able to get that up and running this year," Axtell said. "When asked to come up with reductions in our department, that is one that I had offered up because it would have the least amount of impact to the day-to-day operations of our department."

Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she's disappointed that the program didn't come to fruition.

"I remember in last year's budget conversations, there were a lot of programs that we saw come to us that weren't fully fleshed out — I remember this one in particular," she said. "But we, I think out of a genuine desire to make this program and others like it happen, took a lot on faith."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509