Tuesday, May 10, 2005 | In a budget season dominated by talk of pension costs, the City Council got an explicit illustration Monday of the impacts of San Diego’s billion dollar pension deficits on the $346 million police budget.
Although the Police Department’s proposed budget is slated to increase by $24.6 million for fiscal year 2006, its staffing levels still remain lower than they did in 2003, and the department faces losing 40 community officers that serve as translators and cultural liaisons in immigrant and refugee communities.
About $21 million of the increased police budget is slated to go to the city’s contributions to its retirement system and annual costs for retiree health care benefits. The additional funds are to go to increased labor costs of current employees and overtime expenses.
The cuts in the police budget are concentrated in one specific area, as 40 of the 60 community service officer positions would be eliminated. Thirteen of the positions are open, 27 of the reductions would result in layoffs.
“The communities that are going to be most affected are the immigrant communities and the communities of color,” Councilman Michael Zucchet said of the layoffs.
Community service officers are non-sworn officers who serve as translators and cultural liaisons in the San Diego communities populated by refugees and other immigrants. Residents from neighborhoods with prominent Indo-Chinese, East African and Hispanic communities turned out in droves to plead that the council not eliminate community service officers in such places as San Ysidro and City Heights.
Many residents spoke of their community service officers by name. Indeed, the officers are responsible for attending Neighborhood Watch meetings and residents thanked their community officers for reducing petty thefts and gang crimes.
“I have a feeling if we lose our CSO’s, we’re going to go back to where we were 15 years ago,” said resident Maria Cortez.
The City Council tentatively approved the police budget, though it will revisit it again in late June to finalize the budget as a whole and see if the $1.8 million necessary to save the 27 community service offices can be found in other recesses of the budget.
The vote was 6-to-3, with Councilmen Scott Peters, Michael Zucchet, Brian Maienschein, Jim Madaffer, Ralph Inzunza and Mayor Dick Murphy voting to tentatively approve the budget. Council members Toni Atkins, Tony Young and Donna Frye objected.
“This disproportionately affects less-influential communities,” Atkins said of the proposed cuts to community service officers.
On the bright side, the city will fund 130 new officers to pass through the police academy, allowing the police department to keep up, and perhaps surpass, attrition rates. In 2006, the department anticipates having 2,102 sworn officers and 561 civilian positions on staff.
Officials also admit that the budget doesn’t account for more than $7 million in overtime costs that will likely be accrued throughout the year. Failing to properly account for public safety overtime is a chronic issue at the city, though officials did make an effort this year to underfund overtime by $1.75 million less than in previous years.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre and a number of council members discussed the possibility of putting revenue increases in front of voters during the same July 26 special election for a mayoral primary to help cover its growing financial problems.
A recent study by a progressive think tank showed that if San Diego simply charged taxes at the average rate of California’s top 10 cities, it would have more than $200 million in extra revenues for its day-to-day expenses. Its current general fund budget, which covers day-to-day costs for such things as public safety, parks and libraries, is proposed to be $857.7 million.
San Diego’s low-revenue status is one in a host of factors blamed for the pension problems.
The council would have to vote by next Tuesday to put any revenue measure on the ballot, Aguirre said.
On a day that the department released crime statistics showing that serious crime was down significantly in San Diego, many council members congratulated police officials led by Chief William Lansdowne for keeping San Diego one of the nation’s safest big cities on a tight budget.
“There’s lots of good news in the city of San Diego,” Lansdowne said.
Like she has for years, Frye demanded that the city seek money owed to it by its redevelopment agencies, such as Centre City Development Corp., in order to maintain funding for the community officers.
“When you’re in debt, one of the things you do is go out and collect from the people that owe you money,” she said.
City Manager Lamont Ewell said CCDC owes the city about $100 million in certain grant funds. He and Aguirre are preparing reports for the council on how that money could be allocated. The reports are scheduled to be back to council next week.
Several of Frye’s council colleagues took to the idea of using redevelopment funds to help the city out in this tough budget year.
“After three or four years of listening to Mrs. Frye bring it up, it’s finally gotten through to me,” Inzunza said.
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at