CERES — A half-cent sales tax preserved police officer jobs from budget cuts here, but law enforcement still felt the impact.
One layoff in particular left a void in the Ceres Police Department: community relations officer.
The person who held that position used to run the Neighborhood Watch Program, organize gatherings for police and residents, and encourage La-tino crime victims to cooperate with police, among other duties.
Ceres police Chief Art de Werk said the job vacancy forced some patrol officers off the street to handle those duties. He also said many residents told him they missed having a readily available community relations officer to hear their concerns.
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City officials decided to fill that gap by using federal stimulus money to reinstate the community relations position and protect two community service officer jobs from looming budget cuts.
Ceres' $470,000 federal stimulus grant provides funding for the salaries of the three positions over the next two years.
That's a different goal than neighboring police departments pursued when they had an opportunity to fill law enforcement jobs with stimulus cash. Most law enforcement agencies are using the money to hire rank-and-file officers.
Community service officers handle a variety of roles in Ceres, including collecting and managing evidence, parking enforcement, dealing with abandoned vehicles, traffic control, and taking reports of burglaries and thefts.
Along with the community relations officer, "community service officers are critical for maintaining the efficiency of the department," de Werk said.
The stimulus grant will ensure the three police support staff positions survive another round of cuts. In February, the community relations officer was one of 11 city employees whose positions were eliminated to balance the city's budget.
The cuts were designed to prioritize public safety by preserving as many positions as possible for officers on the street. They were intended to save $1.13 million each year, an initial step toward shoring up a $4.2 million deficit over the next three to four years.
No COPS money here
City Manager Brad Kilger said the stimulus grant came at the right time to help Ceres lessen the blow of more budget cuts.
"It allows us to retain those positions, because we're going into another very difficult year financially," Kilger said. "We're going to have to make additional cuts. This will help keep us from having to make such deep cuts."
While other police agencies in Stanislaus County applied for grants from the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Recovery Program, Ceres police did not and chose to look for stimulus money that would fund its support staff.
The COPS grants allowed police departments to rehire laid-off officers, save positions that could be cut or hire new officers. De Werk said his department wasn't planning any layoffs for officers, and the City Council wasn't looking to hire any new officers.
With the passage of the Measure H half-cent sales tax for public safety in 2007, the city hired five additional police officers and five firefighters last year and is under a voter mandate to maintain the staffing.
The community relations officer position wasn't funded by Measure H, so Enrique Perez lost his job.
Perez worked as a volunteer and helped Ceres police mend relationships with the Latino community after the Jan. 9, 2005, shooting death of Sgt. Howard Stevenson.
Officers killed the assailant, Andres Raya, a 19-year-old Marine from south Modesto, in an exchange of gunfire. Hundreds of residents were upset when Ceres police and other agencies conducted sweeps for gang members, drugs and weapons in Ceres and south Modesto after the incident.
De Werk gave Perez a full-time job as the city's first community relations officer.
Post to be filled in February
Ceres Mayor Anthony Canella said the community relations officer was his "right-hand man" who told him what residents were worried about and brought concerns directly from the community to him.
"With the two CSOs and the community resource officer, we're bringing back an important position and it's giving us some relief in our general fund," Canella said.
The Police Department will start a search soon to fill the reinstated position, and Perez can apply for the job. De Werk said his department has to go through a hiring process and can't unilaterally appoint someone. He said the job is expected to be filled by the end of February.
Ceres police also received a federal stimulus grant of $83,000 to pay for overtime incurred for narcotics enforcement operations over the next two years. The money will also be used to purchase specialized equipment for narcotics investigators, said Mike Borges, deputy chief for Ceres police.
"Drug enforcement operations are time-consuming and costly," Borges said. "We're getting constant reports of drug activity, and we need to address these issues."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.