Balancing the city's budget this year and next doesn't appear to require any too-painful budget cuts. But in the longer run, if the economy doesn't recover, significant cuts to fire and police services may become necessary.
In preparation for this worst-case scenario, city manager Kevin Duggan has made a list of $2.5 million in possible cuts to Mountain View's first-responders.
"We aren't recommending those things at this time but they can't be foreclosed either," Duggan said. "We're not going to put the public in jeopardy, that's our highest priority."
Some City Council members agree, and are concerned about what the cuts, part of a $4.5 million list of budget proposals dubbed "tier two," would do to response times to 911 calls.
According to staff reports, the cuts could result in the minimum number of firefighters on duty decreasing from 21 to 19, while eight of the city's 100 police officers, including five community service officers, would have to look for work elsewhere. If these cuts aren't enough, more severe tier three cuts could result in more cuts to public safety through departmental reorganization.
City officials say the police and fire department budgets have grown disproportionately over the years to about half of the city's budget, which is not unusual for municipalities. Without cuts to public safety, the city will have to cut other basic services, such as library services, regular park and street maintenance, planning staff and code inspectors among other things.
"Are they OK with not having as many police officers?" Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga asked of the public. "Are they OK with park lawns not being cut as often?"
In total, the city manager's tier one and tier two cuts equal only $8 million worth of solutions to a deficit that is expected to grow to at least $10 million for 2009-10 and 2010-11 combined. The city manager has already proposed using $2 million in reserves. But now the state government appears to want another $2 million from the city's general fund to balance its own budget.
Low response times
According to city data, in 2008, police responded to serious emergencies, such as shootings, within three and a half minutes on average. Firefighters responded to fires and medical emergencies in four and a half minutes on average.
Abe-Koga said it takes eight minutes on average for paramedics to respond to medical emergencies in cities like San Jose.
"Are folks OK if it goes to eight minutes?" asked Abe-Koga, whose own father narrowly survived a heart attack. "People can die within those four minutes. Those are the real effects these cuts can cause. It is important for the community to give us direction."
Firefighter's Association president John Miguel said first-responders try to make it to a medical emergency within four minutes because that is how long the human body can survive without air. He said the current staffing level for firefighters has saved lives. For example, he said, two people were rescued from burning buildings over the past year, however, "I don't think we would have been able to get them out with the reduced staffing."
Less staffing could also mean slower response times to medical emergencies, especially when firefighters are busy with a fire. To know the exact effects, says police chief and interim fire chief Scott Vermeer, more study is required.
While the suggested fire department cuts could save the city $850,000 in overtime expenses, Mountain View would have a minimum of 19 firefighters on duty instead of 21. Miguel said the city would lose its rescue vehicle most of the time, which is one of the busiest in the city and responded to 1,500 of the city's 5,000 calls last year, usually accompanying a regular fire truck -- a total of five firefighters. The specially equipped truck is stationed at the fire house on Shoreline Boulevard near Villa Street, a central location that allows it to respond to emergencies quickly all over the city. It is the only fire truck equipped with large night lights and an "autopulse" device that "provides compressions for persons in cardiac arrest."
Half of city budget
Some city officials, including council member Mike Kasperzak, believe the city budget for first-responders has grown too large, and are calling for a reevaluation of where the resources go.
"We have become basically a paramedic health and safety department," said Kasperzak, who pointed out that cities like Campbell, Los Gatos and Los Altos save money by having private ambulances, instead of firefighters, respond to medical emergencies.
"I have very strong concerns that our public safety expenses are now up to 50 percent of the city's overall budget," up from 36 percent in 1990-91, Kasperzak said.
Almost every other department was cut during the same period, he said. Community services, for example, which include parks and recreation, decreased from 16 to 14 percent in those years.
But others say the reallocation of funds has saved lives. Miguel said the fire department began providing paramedic services years ago because the ambulance company the city was using sometimes took 20 minutes to respond to an emergency. He said that having firefighter paramedics is now the "industry standard."
Today, ambulances only respond in Mountain View if someone has to be taken from the scene. But firefighters always arrive first.
Last year the fire department responded to 2,745 health emergency calls, excluding automobile accidents. During the same period, there were 139 calls for fires. Every fire station has a firefighter trained as a paramedic who rolls out to medical emergencies in a fire truck with two other firefighters.
This Tuesday, June 2, the City Council is expected to provide feedback before approving a 2009-10 budget on June 9.
Next week: How would the Police Department fare?