The Mountain View Police Department escaped the chopping block as the city's budget was carved out Tuesday. But like their firefighter counterparts, police could face painful cuts in the future if the city hopes to balance its budget amid economic turmoil.
Eight of the city's 100 sworn police officers may have to look for work elsewhere in the next few years, according to a list of last-resort "tier two" cuts to police services totaling $1.37 million created by city manager Kevin Duggan after discussions with police Chief Scott Vermeer.
Faced with budget realities, some City Council members are wondering how much the community values its police services compared to other city services, such as library service, park and street maintenance and recreation programs. Without cuts to public safety, other basic services will have to be pared back.
Some city officials say the police and fire department budgets have grown disproportionately over the years to about half of the city's $88 million general fund. Thirty-one percent, or $27 million, goes to police.
Under the potential cuts, five of the city's eight community service officers would be out of a job, saving the city $108,000 in salary and benefits for each position for a total of $540,000. In addition, three police agents — a supervisor rank below sergeant — would be let go so the city could save $528,900 ($176,300 per agent), while the city would have to shell out another $15,000 in pay and benefit raises to each of three agents who would be promoted to sergeant as part of the deal.
Response times up?
In 2008, police responded to serious emergencies, such as shootings, within three and a half minutes on average. Vermeer said response times to emergency calls may not be affected by the suggested cuts to police, but lower priority "service" calls, such as a report of a suspicious person, could suffer. Nick Galiotto, a former mayor and police officer, was concerned.
"If police officers have to 'take over' the numerous lower-threat tasks now performed by community service officers, their increased overall workload will probably mean longer response times to the community's calls for service," Galiotto said in an e-mail.
"The point of having a CSO is to reduce the necessity of a police officer handling certain calls for service, infractions and non-dangerous misdemeanors," Galiotto wrote. "For example, the recovery of an abandoned stolen vehicle can be processed by a CSO, thus not requiring the time of a highly trained police officer with powers of arrest at significantly higher cost."
The loss of three police agents also has its drawbacks, Galiotto pointed out.
"A police officer is frequently involved in incidents requiring supervisory assistance, such as application of technical arrest, search and/or impound laws. Having an agent on a shift allows an officer to obtain such assistance without waiting for the shift sergeant to complete some other assignment."
Positions on block
In total, the Police Department could lose 11 full-time positions and four part-time positions, including two full-time records specialists who man the front counter and help detectives search for records (saving $212,000), and three part-time assistants who handle things like sex offender registration, impound vehicle hearings, crime analysis and data entry (saving $135,000).
Compared to other city departments, the Police Department budget has grown disproportionately since 1991. The city's fire and police departments have added 21 employees since 1991, while the rest of the city government lost 37 employees.
According to a Police Department audit from February 2008, the city already pays less per capita for police services than Milpitas, Palo Alto and Redwood City, which are considered to be comparable local cities.
Police spokesperson Liz Wylie said morale in the department didn't appear to be down because of the suggested cuts.
"Quite a few people think that tier two won't ever be necessary," she said. "There are some people who are very worried. People named in tier two are pretty worried."
The City Council is expected to formally approve a 2009-10 budget on June 9, but the suggested cuts to police and fire — developed after months of discussions between Duggan and Vermeer — are viewed as a last resort and are not recommended at this time by city staff.
After the council budget hearing Tuesday, it appears there is about $1.5 million in tier two cuts that can be made before public safety will be affected. That may not be enough to fill a projected $4 million gap for 2010-11, unless new solutions are found. But officials say there aren't many such solutions in a city government that is already budgeted "lean," with few options for new revenue.