As law enforcement agencies across the region brace for painful budget cuts that could mean officer layoffs, many are counting on the $787 billion federal stimulus package for relief.
The tidal wave of money promised $4 billion for public safety nationwide. Some funding already is here. Local law enforcement agencies have reaped more than $5 million in one-time grants, mostly to buy equipment.
The big prize will come in September, when more than $90 million could flow into Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties to keep police and sheriff's departments ranks from thinning.
But that money isn't a sure thing, and the fallout if it doesn't come through could be devastating. Without the extra cash, many police departments -- including Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale -- probably will be forced to cut staff.
Here's what the stimulus money means for local law enforcement agencies:
Three months from now, police chiefs and sheriffs will either breathe a sigh of relief or brace for layoffs. That's when they'll find out if they're lucky winners of grants from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Recovery Program. The stimulus package poured $1 billion into COPS. Police departments can use the money to rehire laid-off officers, save positions that could be cut, or hire new officers.
Competition for the funds is fierce. COPS has $1 billion to fund salaries for 5,500 sworn officers nationwide. Applications were submitted for more than 38,000 officer positions, representing $8.1 billion in funding.
The odds are long, but that didn't stop the sheriff's department and almost every city in Stanislaus County from applying for the funds. The grants could save or add almost 70 officer jobs countywide.
Applications are scored on a variety of factors, including the city's fiscal health, local poverty levels and crime rates. That means Modesto police can turn a perennial negative -- out-of-control auto thefts -- into a positive, said acting Chief Mike Harden. "We hate being number one (in car thefts), but if it positions us favorably to score higher, then we're happy." Modesto applied for $13.8 million to fund 40 positions over three years.
Sheriff Adam Christianson went the extra mile, literally, to boost the county's chances of winning money, he said. On a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., Christianson visited the COPS office to put in a good word for Stanislaus County's funding application.
That face time helps, but it doesn't guarantee funding, said COPS spokesman Corey Ray. "When they make that effort and bring that to our attention here in D.C., I can't say it gets them extra credit, but it does help us recognize the issues they're dealing with," said Ray.
Too many strings, some say
Some agencies are less gung-ho about chasing COPS dollars. Some said the grants come with too many strings. The funding covers three years of officer salaries. But cities must prove they can keep paying those costs for a year after the grant runs out. "The scary thought is, you have to be careful what you ask for," said Los Banos police Chief Dan Fitchie. "We're hopeful that in three years' time, things will have turned around."
That gamble was too much for Waterford. The city doesn't anticipate any police layoffs, but officials could have applied for a COPS grant to hire new officers.
The city decided against it, said Chief Darin Gharat. The grant would have cost too much, Gharat said, because it only covers base salaries for officers -- not the training and equipment that go with them. Gharat said he also was unsure the city's finances would improve enough over the next three years to take on the new costs.
"Obviously none of us has a crystal ball, but based on the lay of the land, we just felt it was more prudent and more fiduciarily responsible to not take on that additional burden," said Gharat.
Good experiences, bad experiences
Waterford was one many cities that received COPS funding in the 1990s. The Clinton administration pumped billions into the program, promising to put 100,000 new officers on the street.
Waterford didn't have a positive experience with the grant, said City Administrator Chuck Deschenes, who wasn't city administrator back then.
Federal investigators found that Waterford misused the funding. The city was forced to pay back the money in installments, said Deschenes. That was part of the reason Waterford decided against applying for this round of COPS funding, said Deschenes.
But others now asking for COPS dollars saw positive outcomes from the 1990s version. Oakdale Police Chief Marty West was on the force in Fresno then, when the city was crippled by a crime wave. The COPS funding added about 250 new officers, and pushed Fresno's crime rate to its lowest level in decades, West said.
Now in Oakdale, West isn't looking to add officers. He's hoping COPS money -- and a slew of other federal grants -- will help him hold on to officers who could be laid off later this year.
Many departments are using stimulus dollars to stock up on new equipment, including patrol cars and mobile computers. West could have used some grant money to pay for new equipment too, but decided against it.
"I couldn't justify buying equipment when I'm facing five officer layoffs," West said.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.