City officials are meeting with community groups to inform them of what’s at stake in November.
Police Chief Gary Brizzee, Fire Chief Chet Guintini and City Manager Steve Carrigan are speaking with civic groups about the importance of a ballot measure that would continue to divert a portion of a half-cent sales tax for the salaries of eight first responders. On Monday, the trio met with the Enterprise to lay out their case for passage of Measure K.
Measure K will allow eight emergency services workers to continue to be paid from facilities funding in a half-cent sales tax. The tax, known as Measure P, was approved in 2004 for public safety equipment, facilities and personnel. As the economy suffered a downturn in 2009, voters approved Measure A. It allows police officers and firefighters to receive salary and benefits through Measure P money previously being saved to build a new police station and firefighter training tower. Measure A, which pays for the salaries of six police officers and two firefighters, sunsets in 2014. Measure K extends Measure A through 2020.
If Measure K fails to receive two-thirds voter approval, the police and firefighter salaries will have to be paid from the city’s general fund, and Los Banos officials are not confident the city is going to bring in enough tax revenue to fund those salaries.
Brizzee said the Police Department has 36 sworn officers and would be stretched thin if that number goes down to 30.
“There are over 600 documented gang members and associates in Los Banos, and there are over 18 active criminal gangs,” Brizzee said. “Crime is increasing in the neighborhoods. We’ve heard through some of the major federal investigations where people are specifically coming to Los Banos so they can hide out. We know it to be true because we’ve heard it from the gang members’ mouths.”
The Los Banos Fire Department has 14 paid and 27 volunteer firefighters. Guintini said it is important to maintain staffing levels because of the need for an immediate response to medical and fire calls.
“Keeping paid staff is getting that first and second company right now,” Guintini said. “We need to look at the whole picture. If we were to lose that funding, all that personnel would have to go back to the general fund.”
There is opposition to Measure K.
Baldo Salcido said he thinks city officials are engaging in scare tactics.
“It (Measure K) is not necessary,” Salcido said. “They want you to think that if it doesn’t pass, we’ll lose six police officers. The general fund pays those salaries, and there’s a $6 million surplus.”
The city approved a budget in June with anticipated general fund revenue at $9.9 million and expenditures at $10.2 million. The difference is made up by general fund reserve money, which at $6.5 million is nearly double the 2008 amount.
This summer, Carrigan eliminated a 2.5 percent salary contribution employees were asked to make in 2009 to their Cafeteria Plan for health, vision, dental and life insurance. The decline in salary contributions equates to $14,738 from the general fund and $857 from Measure P. A similar deal was also struck with the city’s Fire Department and non-unionized workers, such as public works and the finance departments.
Carrigan defended the decision.
“We need to retain our employees. We don’t need people to leave for other cities,” he said.
Carrigan also said if Measure K doesn’t pass, the general fund will take a hit from absorbing the eight public safety salaries combined with the added contributions to employees’ benefits plans.
“I see Measure K as a building block for our future. Right now we are at core services, if Measure K doesn’t pass we start digging into the bone. If you really want to get a bleak picture of what’s going on, go visit Atwater or the county. While I know we’re not as in bad of shape as those communities, if Measure K does not pass we’re right back,” Carrigan said.
Salcido said the city is getting more money than its projections state because sales tax and property tax are on the uptick. He also said Measure P was a mandate for the funds to be spent on facilities.
“City Hall doesn’t understand the definition of mandate,” Salcido said.
If approved, Guintini said, the city cannot guarantee it won’t ask for an extension on Measure K if it’s needed seven years from now. However, he said it would not be the city’s preference.
“We want to get back to building our facilities,” Guintini said.