Editorial: City voters expect public safety boost

Published: Saturday, May. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

One by one, the chiefs of Sacramento's parks, fire and police departments declared how happy they were to be talking about adding programs and people – not cutting them as they have for five straight years.

Some City Council members want to spend even more of the city's new sales tax bounty to beef up public safety.

They have a point. Putting nearly $3.3 million of the $27 million projected for 2013-14 in a reserve, as City Manager John Shirey is recommending, does seem overly cautious.

By approving Measure U last November, voters made clear they wanted to restore basic services slashed during the recession. They weren't voting to put money in a savings account, several council members argued during budget hearings Tuesday.

They are calling for ending all four fire company brownouts as soon as possible; Shirey's plan would keep one rotating closure until next year. Fire Chief Ray Jones told the council that response time was nearly 90 seconds slower in areas covered by brownouts, but also said that it will take time to run new firefighters through the academy.

With its 51 reinforcements, the Police Department plans to add patrols and ramp up investigations. New Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. outlined other initiatives on his agenda, such as targeting "prolific offenders" who lure others into crime, seizing guns from people who are legally prohibited from having them and expanding neighborhood watch and other community programs.

Councilman Darrell Fong, a retired police captain, said that even with the additions, department staffing would still be "critically low" – down as much as 124 from the high in 2007, depending how negotiations go with the police union on pension payments.

While council members are listening to their constituents, Shirey and his team have plausible reasons to be somewhat conservative.

They don't want to spend too much at the outset since it's not clear yet how much the half-cent hike, which started April 1, will generate for the city. Also, increasing the city workforce is an ongoing expense, while the sales tax is scheduled to end in six years and the city's pension costs are expected to rise.

So Shirey says the city needs to start building a cushion to avoid falling off its own "fiscal cliff" in 2019 if tax revenues don't increase substantially.

New Councilman Steve Hansen backed up the city manager, saying that the staff proposal is prudent.

Councilman Steve Cohn, however, argued that the strong public support for Measure U – it passed with 64 percent of the vote – gives the city license to take more risk.

There should be an obvious compromise – a somewhat smaller reserve that allows the city to add more police officers and firefighters in early 2014, when officials will have firmer numbers on Measure U and after enough time to hire and train new officers. Council members should seek that middle ground before adopting the budget next month.

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