At a news conference late last year, the mayor's office was so packed with police officers and reporters that people were knocking things off the wall.

Flanked by more than a dozen blue uniforms, York City Mayor Kim Bracey had called the conference to draw a symbolic line in the sand.

She announced she would veto the 2012 budget if it included more cuts to police officer and firefighter jobs -- a proposal advocated by some York City Council members hoping to avoid a huge tax increase.

When the dust settled, officials had agreed to eliminate six jobs -- three each in the police and fire departments -- through attrition. City government returned to normal, and people stopped knocking things off walls.

But the city budgets just one year at a time. In cash-strapped York, officials are almost sure to face more tough choices when these discussions resume in the fall. The stakes are high.

Soon after the 2012 budget passed, Chief Wes Kahley warned that York's police department is already under-staffed.

"The problem is when you compare us to the other third-class cities around the state, we're already well below the manpower that these other cities have," Kahley said at the time. "We're already working at a bare bones minimum."

Hoping to bring some clarity to the debate, The York Dispatch conducted a limited but deliberate comparison of York's police and fire staffing levels to other third-class

cities in Pennsylvania.

Though there are more than 40 third-class cities in the state, the Dispatch analysis considered only those 10 that are closest to York in terms of population.

How York stacks up: The most recent census numbers put York's population at 43,718 people. The city's police department is currently operating with 105 officers, and its fire department is staffed with 64 firefighters. (The fire department will have 61 firefighters when three jobs are eliminated through attrition.)

Compared to those 10 other cities, York ranks fifth out of 11 for residents per police officer. In terms of firefighters per resident, York ranks sixth of 11.

Of course, that's just one way of evaluating York's staffing levels. Several officials said the approach is too simple.

To staff a police department, important factors to consider include an area's poverty levels, education and unemployment rates, Councilman Henry Nixon wrote in an email after reviewing the data.

When it comes to fire, he said, other factors are square mileage, types of buildings, population density and environmental conditions.

That said, looking at the comparison to other cities, York appears to be sufficiently staffed, Nixon wrote. He said he will consider cuts to the fire and police departments to save money in 2013.

"The real question for us as a city is not how many we need, but how many we can afford," Nixon wrote.

Council President Carol Hill-Evans wrote in an email after reviewing the data that she will look at all areas of the budget to save money. However, because police and fire account for the biggest chunk of the budget, they are especially vulnerable, she said.

"To their credit, both our police and fire departments are diligent about looking for state and federal grants to support both jobs within the departments and functions and services of the departments," Hill-Evans wrote.

Councilman Michael Helfrich pointed out York is an especially densely populated city compared to other urban areas, making its fire-department staffing and response time especially critical.

"We will have to see if there are any other potential ways of saving in those departments. Everything is on the table. There's no doubt about that," Helfrich said. "But of course, the safety of the citizens is the prime directive of the city. So of course it'll be scrutinized, but it would be the last thing that I would want to cut."

What's most relevant: Last week, Kahley reiterated his opinion that York's police department is under-staffed.

"That being said, the numbers that we have, we make them work," Kahley said. "My concern always is dropping the numbers lower. What you lose is the ability to be proactive."

Population is but one factor Kahley said he uses to compare York's police staffing level with other cities. Socioeconomic conditions -- which have a direct impact on crime rates -- are at least as significant, he said.

Generally, Kahley said, he considers comparisons to Harrisburg and Lancaster the most relevant to York.

While a city like Scranton has nearly 30,000 more residents than York, its Part 1 crimes -- which include the most serious crimes such as murder and rape -- were not significantly higher than York's in 2010, for example.

"There's a huge need difference there. You just can't look at population and figure that that's going to determine your need," Kahley said.

Looking at the same list of cities, York ranks fourth in the number of Part 1 crimes reported in 2010. Lancaster and Harrisburg rank first and second, respectively.

Fire Chief Steve Buffington wrote in an email that population is "not the single most important factor in determining adequate fire department staffing."

"One could argue in favor of many different factors that are the most important, but it realistically boils down to a blending of several factors," he wrote.

For example, in communities with sprinkler requirements, fire department staffing could theoretically be adjusted downward, Buffington said. Conversely, older cities with "combustible construction" might require more firefighters, he said.

Firefighter safety must also be a priority, Buffington said.

If it were up to Kahley -- and money were no object -- the police chief said he'd hire as many as 150 officers, and he'd have them connecting with residents and solving crime. When a position is cut, it's usually the proactive police work that suffers, he said.

"We still have to provide the same amount of service no matter what. The quality of service is what changes dramatically when you lower your numbers," he said. "But I also understand the reality of the situation."

-- Reach Erin James at 505-5439 or ejames@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ydcity.