Funding on ballot for fire, police in Ceres

CERES -- Depending on the time of day, as few as two police officers are patrolling this city of 40,000.

On a recent Tuesday evening, officer James Yandell was one of those on-duty responders, taking calls for fights, conducting traffic stops and serving drug arrest warrants.

Just after 10 p.m., Yandell, along with other officers, responded to a report of a burglary at an RV storage spot. Squad cars flooded the lot with spotlights and red and blue flashing lights.

"One call can completely deplete our resources," Yandell said. "It may look like a lot of cars, but the goal is to make our presence known at that moment."

While some residents might think there are plenty of police or firefighters in town, city officials say both departments are understaffed for the population they serve. Ceres has 1.07 police officers for every 1,000 residents. Modesto's ratio is 1.35.

To plug the gap, voters are being asked to approve Measure H in November.

The initiative would increase the sales tax by a half cent, from 7.375 percent to 7.875 percent. The additional revenue would pay for more police officers, firefighters and equipment. The tax would bring in an estimated $2.5 million in its first year and $31.4 million over 10 years.

In addition to the police ranks, low staffing on the fire side limits efforts, officials said.

Federal regulations require at least four firefighters to battle a blaze. Ceres is running two-person engines, so two vehicles must arrive before suppression can start. At any given time, eight firefighters are on duty.

A little more than 70 percent of the city's $16.7 million general fund budget is spent on public safety: $11.9 million on dispatching, emergency medical services, fire and police. Most California cities spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their budget on police and fire.

The 44-member police department has gained two positions since 2000, despite a 21 percent increase in population. The fire department has doubled from 12 to 24 firefighters during the same period.

Funds only for public safety

Measure H calls for funds to be spent solely on public safety and requires an independent citizens oversight committee and annual audit to monitor the spending.

An expenditure plan lays out how funds would be allocated for 10 years. The estimated $31.4 million in revenue would be split almost evenly between the two departments, providing for 11 more police officers, 13 new firefighters and addi- tional equipment.

"We know where our problem areas are in town. We just don't have the resources to deal with the problem," Yandell said.

Right now, limited drug and gang prevention is done on overtime.

One of Measure H's priorities is setting up a street crime unit. Officers would focus on specific crimes, "hot-button issues in the community like vandalism or juvenile delinquents," Yandell said. "It focuses on enforcement as well as the education side."

More staffing also would allow officers and firefighters to work less mandatory overtime. A father of two young children, Yandell said it's not uncommon for him to log 30 to 40 hours of overtime each two-week pay period. The public safety overtime budget is through the roof and leads to burnout, Police and Fire Chief Art de Werk said.

Measure H requires two-thirds approval by voters. Surveys of likely voters conducted by the city have shown enough support for the measure to meet that threshold. Ten Central Valley cities have sales taxes for police and fire, including Merced.

No group filed an argument against Measure H for the Stanislaus County Sample Ballot. Measure H coordinators have not seen any organized opposition.

No tax for food, prescriptions

The sales tax does not apply to necessities such as food or prescriptions, so it shouldn't impact those on a fixed income, said Brenda Herbert, co-chairwoman of the Keep Ceres Safe Yes on H campaign and co-owner of Ceres Floral.

Herbert's involvement is personal, her Whitmore Avenue shop has been held up at gunpoint and burglarized, she said.

"It's such a small price to pay -- out of $100, to pay 50 cents extra to increase safety to businesses, families, parks, schools, the community," said Eric Ingwerson, campaign co-chairman and a Realtor. He's also a Ceres Unified School District trustee and former Ceres mayor.

Measure H would allow the City Council to amend "from time to time" the expenditure plan with a majority vote. The initiative has no sunset date.

While the expenditure plan calls for additional police, firefighters and police equipment, it does not mention firefighting equipment, which the campaign is promising. Herbert and Ingwerson said that was a mistake, that more firehouse equipment is necessary with an increase in firefighters and that money would be spent on fire equipment.

The bottom line, Ingwerson said, is "would you pay 10 to 25 cents more to feel safer?"

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.