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Bob's Boys in Blue 

No Expense Spared for Mr. Johnson

They're down to the bare essentials, and they want you to feel their pain. The budget hawks down at City Hall need you to understand just how far they're willing to go to avoid raising taxes. They'll decrease garbage pickup. Afterschool programs for under-privileged children will have to go. In fact, if they don't get their tax increase, fire stations might have to close down, endangering the lives of thousands. Nothing is too sacred for the budget ax. Nothing except ... the budget for Bob, as in Bob Johnson, billionaire owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.

City leaders may not be able to find any money for the kiddies, but they did manage to pull $800,000 out of their collective wazoos to pay police officers overtime to work events at the arena. That's so Bob doesn't get stuck with the bill for a service the Carolina Panthers are willing to pay for. Exactly where this $800,000 came from, given that the city is supposedly broke, seems to be the best kept secret in Charlotte. Even City Budget Director Ruffin Hall didn't know the answer when we called him last week.

Sergeant Ozzie Holshouser put together the budget for the arena policing, and he doesn't know, either. "I was told they'd found the money somewhere," he said. His captain doesn't know either.

The city is obligated to provide free traffic control, according to the contract City Manager Pam Syfert hatched with the NBA behind closed doors. In it, the city agreed to provide Bob with his own personal police squad of 40 to 47 officers per event at taxpayer expense for all 120 events a year. She didn't exactly tell City Council about it at the time, and the details got buried in a contract none of them apparently read until it was too late. So the deal was that the city would pay to build the arena and Bob would keep the profits from all the events held there and get free traffic control.

Now it looks like the city is taking freebees for billionaire Bob a step further. Initially, the city's newfound enthusiasm for public safety in this year's budget baffled me. Budget documents solemnly declare that no matter what happens, law enforcement must be preserved since it is a core service or something. This struck me as strange coming from a bunch of people who haven't added a single police officer to the budget in six years, a period during which the population grew by 20 percent. These are also the same city leaders who, with a straight face, explained to people that if they call 911 during the occasional periods when call volumes overwhelm the operators, they'll just have to wait on hold because overstaffing the call center to handle high volumes would be too expensive.

Now, all of a sudden, in the middle of the tightest budget year in two decades, these same people suddenly discover a pressing need to add 92 officers over two years. Something didn't smell right to me. As we found, billionaire Bob was at the bottom of it.

Some of these 72 officers will be part of the Bob Squad. Twenty of them were hired to patrol the 120 events at the arena on foot, and will be assigned to the uptown police division. That's on top of the 40 who will be directing traffic.

The arena will double the amount of events held uptown, so they'll be needed, says Holshouser. And when they're not patrolling arena events, they'll be free to do regular police work. The rest of the new officers will be scattered throughout the county and some will wind up patrolling the University area. They're building that new mall up north and all, so more officers will be needed, Holshouser says.

Holshouser's a nice guy, but I'm not sure I'm buying that "new mall" thing either. A lot of things have been built in the last six years, but no one was this jacked up about adding officers for those projects. And the "92 new officers" number is awfully close to the figure of 80 additional officers the city initially said it would need two years ago to police and direct traffic at the new arena.

I think these officers have been needed for a long time, but it would have been too obvious to add only the 20-member Bob Squad during a tight budget year. So they added 92 officers over two years. And given the number of officers that will now be needed to work overtime directing traffic at arena events, adding a total of 92 more officers to the force will ensure that there are plenty of guys available to work the Bob Squad and fill the demand for off-duty work as well.

Maybe billionaire Bob will find it in his heart to make a donation to those after school children's programs we've been hearing so much about lately. It's the least he can do.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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