Ceres beefs up public safety thanks to sales tax measure

CERES -- The state budget deficit and the poor economy have persuaded most cities to tighten their public safety budgets.

But Ceres is hiring police officers and firefighters, thanks to a half-cent sales tax approved by voters last year.

In June, the city received about $155,000 as its first monthly disbursement from Measure H, a tax measure to fund an expansion of police and fire services. Recruiting began even before the revenue, predicted to be $1.9 million this year and $30 million over 10 years, began flowing.

Public Safety Director Art de Werk, who oversees the police and fire divisions, said Thursday the city has hired two of the five officers needed to meet the Measure H hiring obligations for the first year.

The police division has added one sergeant and an officer, and is in the selection process for two more officers, he said. Completing the hiring process could take six to eight weeks because of the medical, psychiatric and background checks.

In September, the department expects to hire a lieutenant. If that position is filled by promotion, the department will use Measure H funds to fill the vacated position.

In addition, three firefighters have been hired. Depending on the training they require, they will not be on the job for six months or more, de Werk said.

Measure H also calls for the hiring of two fire battalion chiefs the first year. Interviews will be conducted in several weeks. The Fire Department could fill the positions in-house and Measure H funds could be spent to fill the vacancies created, de Werk said.

Ceres has a goal of staffing the city's four fire stations with three-person engine companies, as well as improving management of critical incidents. Station No. 1 on Third Street will have the first three-person company.

At present, there are two firefighters at each station, which isn't acceptable by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for fire protection.

Three-person companies will put more firefighters at the scene to attack the blaze and the new battalion chiefs will provide better incident management. De Werk said the command and control presence will serve to prevent injuries.

"A number of years ago, a porch collapsed on a firefighter," he said. "Why he didn't get severely injured I still don't know. A battalion chief is needed to manage each critical incident. Without that, it's a recipe for disaster."

In developing the Measure H ordinance, Ceres residents placed a priority on addressing gang violence. Five weeks ago, the Police Department created a street crimes unit to focus on gangs and drug houses.

De Werk appointed Sgt. Patrick Sullivan, a department veteran, to head the unit and appointed one officer to the unit. Although the tax measure calls for a three-person unit, the chief envisions a four-member team. It should be fully staffed in six to eight weeks, he said.

The unit will identify gang members and gather intelligence, so police are ready to respond to developing incidents. Last year, patrol officers responded to 30 incidents reported as drive-by shootings and often arrived to find little evidence, other than bullet holes in a wall or traces of blood.

"Fairly often, a resident living near a park calls 911 and says there is a fight brewing between two gang factions," de Werk said. "We would like to get to the point where we know these things are happening in advance and intervene beforehand."

The unit could intervene by meeting with gang members or making arrests if there is probable cause, he said.

Under the Measure H spending plan, another officer will be hired next year, then it will take time for a projected growth in sales tax receipts to fund additional hiring. The current slump in retail activity will affect Measure H revenue.

"I believe the department will hire the best people qualified for the jobs," said Lisa Mantarro Moore, chairwoman of the citizens committee that oversees Measure H spending. "City officials are very aware of the economy and so we are not going to spread ourselves too thin."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.