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January 23, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, January 23, 2004

Police, fire could face cuts Police, fire could face cuts (January 23, 2004)

Uncertainty continues to loom over state budget

By Julie O'Shea

Only weeks after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed $150 million in spending to fill the hole left from the car tax repeal, Mountain View police and fire services have once again found themselves vulnerable to budget cuts.

Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger laid out a $76.1 million budget proposal that would take $1.3 billion in property taxes and redevelopment fees away from local governments. For Mountain View, that would equal a $1.2-million hit to its 2004-2005 budget if approved by the state Legislature. Mountain View administrators have indicated that a sizable chunk may have to come from the police and fire departments since they took the smallest cuts when this year's budget was balanced.

However, the city's public safety chiefs are saying that it is too soon to speculate on how these cuts may impact their departments. A clearer picture on potential budget cuts likely won't come until May when the governor presents a revised budget plan to the public. And in the end, it will be up to the City Council to make the final budget decisions for Mountain View.

"It's going to be a tough one this year -- we came within a dime of laying people off last year," Council member Rosemary Stasek said. What this year's cuts will boil down to for Stasek is what the essential services in those departments are.

Public safety is also a top priority for Council member Nick Galiotto, who served nearly three decades on the city's police force.

If it's a matter of keeping the city's public swimming pools open longer or maintaining the five-minute response time for a resident suffering a heart attack calling 911, Galiotto says the decision should be blatantly obvious.

"I don't agree that we have to have all departments suffer equally," Galiotto said.

The retired police captain acknowledges that the safety departments' budgets have been "relatively left alone," when compared to the cuts other city departments have absorbed. But, Galiotto added, council members should consider what the city infrastructure is for and realize that police and fire are at the top of the list.

"I presume we will be able to avoid big cuts," Council member Mary Lou Zoglin said. However, "we can't ever predict what direction the state will go in." This is a point that has many city officials nervous.

"It's kind of a like a shell game. You don't know where the money is going to come from," Fire Chief Marc Revere said.

He said he will be meeting next week with city administrators to discuss the budget situation. The city's budget doesn't have to be finalized until June 30, but the lengthy process to develop it has already begun.

There are still a lot of uncertainties at the state level, and Galiotto fears that if Schwarzenegger's $15 billion "recovery" bond doesn't pass in March, local governments could be hit hard.

"We've had three years of cutting budgets," Stasek added. "The easy stuff, not to say anything about (making cuts) is easy, is long gone.

"I'm not in there with a crayon saying 'OK, cut this. OK, cut that.' ... I have to depend on the good recommendations the department heads come up with."

If a major funding decrease hits the police department, Chief Scott Vermeer said he'd have to cut a lieutenant and a few officers who are in training. Ultimately though, it would mean fewer officers on the street, and residents may have to wait a little longer for emergency help, Vermeer said.

"We don't really know how it will affect the police," Vermeer said. "The city has expectations for the police department."

Fire services are considered vital as well but each of the city's five fire stations costs $1.2 million a year to keep open, according to Revere.

"Our city is very, very healthy," fire union president John Miguel said. "I'm concerned because our revenue is down, but I don't think we are in a crisis that will impact the residents."

Both police and fire chiefs stressed that neither department would leave Mountain View residents hanging regardless of what the budget looks like this summer.

E-mail Julie O'Shea at joshea@mv-voice.com


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