Budget reductions cut into public safety

kvaline@modbee.comMay 9, 2014 

Modesto could close two of its 11 fire stations and have the fewest number of police officers and firefighters in recent memory under the city’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Council members heard the dire news about public safety during the Finance Committee’s budget hearing Wednesday and Thursday on the city’s proposed $340 million operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Most of the focus was on the proposed $107 million general fund, because police and fire services consume about 70 percent of the fund’s budget. Revenues plummeted in the Great Recession because much of the general fund comes from sales, property and other taxes. The operating budget’s two other main funds, which are for water and wastewater, are in better shape because they are funded by ratepayers.

Here are some of the proposed cuts:

• Closing Fire Station 6 at Standiford Avenue near Vintage Faire Mall and deploying its nine firefighters to other fire stations when firefighters are on vacation or off work for other reasons. This would reduce how much the department spends on overtime. The Fire Department also would see the number of budgeted firefighter positions drop from 138 to 129 because it would eliminate nine vacant positions. This would give the department its lowest staffing since at least 1989. The department had 173 firefighters five years ago.

Modesto Regional Fire Authority interim Chief Sean Slamon said the city may even have to close a second station. Slamon said he should have a better idea on that possibility in a few weeks.

“One closure puts us in an extremely vulnerable position,” he said. Two would be devastating to our service delivery. I’m hopeful we don’t have to get to two, and I’m still hopeful we don’t have to get to one.”

• Reduce the number of budgeted positions for police officers from 229 to 209. Five years ago, the Police Department was allocated 287 police officers. The 209 officers is just slightly more than the 203 officers the department was allocated in 1992, according to an organizational chart from that year.

Police and fire are accomplishing this downsizing by eliminating vacant positions to avoid layoffs. But when asked whether firefighters would be laid off if a second station were closed, Slamon said, “That’s yet to be determined.”

Modesto is considering these cuts in wake of the failure of Measure X – a 1 percent sales tax – in the November election. The tax, over its six-year life, was expected to bring in about $26 million annually for the general fund. Though the tax could have been used for any purpose, the city said its intent was to spend half of the tax on public safety purposes, including hiring police officers and firefighters.

Modesto has seen its general fund revenues nose-dive, from $126.5 million its 2007-08 fiscal year to $104.3 million two years later. Revenues are expected to be $107.4 million in the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year. A fiscal year is July 1 through June 30.

Modesto has balanced its general fund in previous years by eliminating positions and cutting services, such as reducing park maintenance and trimming city trees less often. But it also dipped into reserves and borrowed from other accounts, such as its workers compensation fund.

City officials have said that was a prudent approach at the time because they did not want to cut services too severely and did not believe the recession would be as deep or last as long as it did.

Mayor Garrad Marsh said before the November election that if Measure X did not pass, the general fund faced more deep cuts because the city no longer could afford to dip into reserves and borrow from other funds. He says the proposed 2014-15 general fund budget is the first in many years that is balanced solely by having expenses match revenues; it is about $5 million less than the current general fund budget. The city also is funding the accounts it had been borrowing from.

City officials say Modesto’s revenues are growing, but not fast enough to keep pace with rising expenses. For instance, the city will pay about $17.8 million in 2014-15 for its contribution to its employee pensions, according to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. That is about $1.27 million more than the city’s contribution for this fiscal year.

But city officials faced criticism during Thursday’s budget hearing.

John Miguel – a retired Bay Area firefighter and brother of former Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel – questioned whether the city’s finances were as bad as depicted. He also faulted city officials for not campaigning for Measure X and instead relying on the police and fire unions to do it.

He asked whether the proposed cuts to public safety were retribution to the voters for not passing the sales tax, because Marsh had told voters “they would feel the pain” if the measure failed.

Marsh said the city was being truthful about its finances, and that he backed Measure X with his time and money. Before the election, he was trying to let residents know what the city faced if the sales tax failed, Marsh said. “I didn’t want people to feel the pain,” he said. “... This is not payback.”

The fire budget is in flux because of the impending disbanding of the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, which was formed in 2011 by the city, Stanislaus County and the Salida Fire Protection District. Modesto is expected to get its Fire Department back July 1, the start of the new budget year, and Slamon would be the department’s interim fire chief.

The city’s proposed budget reduces the department’s funding by $2 million. But Slamon said the Fire Department may have opportunities for additional revenue as MRFA unwinds. For instance, he said, the department could provide fire investigation services for all the fire departments in the county through a contract with Stanislaus County.

Modesto also is working on developing closer ties with neighboring fire departments, such as boundary drops, in which the closest engine company responds to a call regardless of the jurisdiction. But Slamon said it could take several months before agreements come before city council and fire boards for approval.

He said fire officials are considering closing Station 6 because it would have the least impact on response times, though those times are expected to worsen throughout the city. Closing the station and deploying its nine firefighters to fill vacancies at other stations would save about $630,000. The department is looking at other cost savings, including a management reorganization, which would save about $425,000. Closing a station and laying off its nine firefighters would save $1.4 million annually.

The Finance Committee recommended the proposed 2014-15 operating budget to the City Council for adoption. The council is expected to discuss and adopt the budget in June.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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