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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 | In an effort to close a $9.5 million budget gap earlier this year, the city of Oceanside proposed reducing the availability of one of its four ambulances. Residents protested, saying it would make them less safe.

City officials dropped the proposal under the weight of the opposition and the fire chief soon resigned. In a letter, the chief said he left for personal reasons, but Oceanside leaders told the North County Times that he was fed up with movements to cut public safety funding. His relationship with city officials had soured.

Even for a smaller city, Oceanside’s budget problems showed how residents can become entrenched in a bitter dispute with their elected leaders over diminishing public safety resources.

San Diego officials are now preparing to wage a similar fight as they propose cutting $200 million from the city’s operating budget.

The size of San Diego’s deficit — and the size of public safety budgets — makes significant cuts to police, rescue and fire services almost inevitable. Mayor Jerry Sanders requested proposals to trim $73 million from the Police Department and $34.7 million from the Fire-Rescue Department. About 81 percent of each department’s budget is personnel expenses, which means the proposed cuts would affect employees — in the form of layoffs, reduced wages, reduced benefits or other options.

“We’re trying to make the cuts in a way that they’re behind the scenes as much as we possibly can … but there are going to be service cuts,” Sanders said about all city services at a press conference last week. “We simply can’t get around that.”

In previous years, officials tried to shield police and fire services from the city’s budget problems. In the last fiscal year, the departments’ budgets didn’t shrink, but the number of budgeted workers did. Other city departments weren’t so fortunate.

“The sign of deep fiscal stress is when local governments are cutting fire and police positions,” said Kurt Thurmaier, director of Northern Illinois University’s Division of Public Administration and an expert in local government budgeting and finance. “That’s a sign that you are really, really losing in the budget battles.”

The debate over further public safety cuts in San Diego will be especially heated since many advocates already call the city’s resources lagging. The local police union says San Diego has one of the most understaffed metropolitan police forces in the country. A national accreditation study said the city would need 22 additional fire stations to improve its response times and to meet industry standards.

“There is no room to cut in either department,” said Jeff Bowman, a former San Diego Fire chief. “I realize the city has budget problems, but the city has immense public safety problems.”

Bowman said public safety should be the fundamental priority of city government over other obligations like infrastructure, recreation or social services. He has company. Councilwoman Marti Emerald said her office is polling her district to gauge what constituents think about service reductions. So far, public safety is their No. 1 concern.

From Emerald’s perspective, cuts to public safety are entirely different than cutting libraries or recreational services. Changing how public safety officers respond to calls could determine whether someone lives or dies. Emerald said she doesn’t have to weigh that kind of heavy risk with other city services.

“This is real serious stuff,” Emerald said. “This is going to be the toughest area when it comes to cutting.”

Erik Bruvold, president of the Institute for Policy Research at National University, compared a trimmed-down public safety force to a less costly insurance policy. As the city invests less money in public safety services — mostly police, rescue and fire — its residents are going to receive less coverage when an unexpected event happens.

Fewer police officers could mean a slower response to disturbance calls. Fewer fire trucks or fire stations could mean more damage to property. Fewer lifeguards could mean fewer eyes watching swimmers.

Police, fire and city officials declined to comment on what types of services could be impacted by the cuts because it’s still under discussion. Sanders is expected to announce his proposals early next week and the City Council is scheduled to address them Dec. 7. In the meantime, people are talking about how the deficit’s large scale makes employee layoffs a high possibility. The mayor has already proposed eliminating more than 800 vacant positions, and about half of those come from the public safety departments.

People familiar with the city’s public safety budgets generally say proposals could focus on reducing the availability of fire trucks, lifeguards or specialized police units. Fire Chief Javier Mainar cited fire companies and lifeguards as potential targets in an interview with KPBS last week. He also sent an internal memo to employees of the Fire-Rescue Department two weeks ago that said his priority is maintaining current levels of firefighters and paramedics.

“On the fire side, we may face company and/or fire station closures; while on the lifeguard side, we could face cuts leading to reduced hours and/or coverage of our beaches and bays,” Mainar said in the memo. “Any cuts in these areas would save money by either reducing overtime needed for constant staffing or through direct reductions in our workforce.”

The Police Department has been less forthcoming about what cutbacks are being discussed. Specialized units or regional task forces are often targeted by police departments because those reductions would not affect emergency operations, patrol enforcement or the investigation of violent crimes. Police might also be hesitant to cut support services, such as the crime laboratory, which could slow all investigations.

Michael Zucchet is the general manager for the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the union that represents white-collar workers, including civilian staff at the public safety departments. In previous budget cuts, Zucchet said, the public safety departments have eliminated support positions and filled some of their duties with sworn officers. That shift would save money, but also take an officer away from policing duties.

In other cities, proposals to scale back on fire stations or ambulances have resulted in public outcry. Los Angeles dramatically scaled back fire services, and proposals in San Francisco prompted a neighborhood-level campaign to keep fire stations. In some cases, residents have questioned whether lives could have been saved if the cuts were not made.

“I don’t think that there is any good way that [the City Council] can come out of this,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus for San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs. “This is going to be a bloodbath.”

For now, most of the labor unions are talking with the Mayor’s Office and council offices about possible cuts. They acknowledge public safety may need to be cut to keep other services operating.

“Everything right now is kind of rumor and speculation, and that’s a dangerous environment to operate in,” Zucchet said. “When there’s some actual proposals on the table from the mayor and the council, that’s when the real discussion and debate will take place.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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