Modesto police officers are protesting looming cuts to law enforcement, setting the stage for tough budget talks in coming weeks.
The Modesto Police Officers Association is circulating a memo that says the City Council could vote to lay off eight to 10 officers this month.
That's considered a worst-case scenario of what might happen if the MPOA rejects Mayor Jim Ridenour's request to defer the union's scheduled 3 percent raise this month and 2 percent raise in February.
The memo off-duty officers stuck on car windows downtown Thursday didn't mention the mayor's request to postpone raises.
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Electronic versions of the document have been pummeling City Council e-mail accounts for a week.
The 202-member union is expected to vote tonight on deferring its raises. The move is intended to save $820,000, a significant share of the $4.8 million gap in the city's general fund that the council must close by July 1.
Other Modesto public employee unions are being asked to take 5 percent pay cuts through unpaid furlough days to stanch the red ink.
"We're just asking for (the MPOA) to put off their raises a year or two until we can get through this," Ridenour said.
The MPOA leadership isn't necessarily opposed to deferring the union's raises, but it wants a pledge that rank-and-file officers won't be laid off. The union's median pay would climb to $6,295 per month if the raises go through as planned, about 17 percent less than the median wage in a dozen comparable agencies.
"We can't get any guarantee for our bottom 15 or 20 people that there wouldn't be layoffs even if we give concessions," MPOA President Tony Arguelles said, referring to the seniority clause that governs union layoffs.
Grant could bring relief
Modesto council members and appointed executives fear that the economy will remain poor through the year, and the state could borrow cash from local governments to balance its budget.
Either scenario could lead to layoffs in Modesto City Hall and its Police Department. Relief could come in the fall when Modesto learns whether the U.S. Justice Department will give the city money to retain or hire police through a special grant.
Ridenour's budget proposal for the financial year that begins July 1 spared the Police Department the steepest cuts, shaving 5 percent in spending mostly by leaving empty positions vacant.
Other departments gave up as much as 25 percent of their budgets, reflecting the council's preference to sustain public safety spending.
All together, the budget included nearly $9 million in general fund cuts, $2.1 million of which came from the Police Department.
The Police Department's $54 million budget represents a little more than half of the city's $107 million general fund.
The memo distributed by MPOA members lays out a number of eye-popping crime statistics, such as the city's continued notoriety as the nation's car theft capital and an increase in homicides last year.
It also shows the number of sworn police officers over the past 10 years rising to 280 in 2007 before falling to 253 this year. Modesto had 258 officers in 1998, according to the memo.
"Our staffing levels for police officers were higher in 1998!" the memo says.
Mayor responds with letter
Ridenour responded to the e-mail bombardment with his own form letter to the police union and its supporters, putting his request to delay raises in the context of a $15 million drop in general fund revenue the city recorded over the past year.
"I can't believe they're doing this," he said, about the union's lobbying effort.
Ridenour in December joined the council in unanimously approving a two-year contract for the MPOA that called for 10 percent raises over a little more than two years.
Other unions, such as the Modesto Confidential and Management Association and the Modesto Police and Fire Non-Sworn Association, did not get raises in their most recent contracts because of a downturn in revenue flowing into city coffers.
"We couldn't see this coming," Ridenour said about the city's worsening financial outlook.
Arguelles said he asked the city whether it was making promises it couldn't fulfill by approving the new contract.
"In December, they knew where they were going," he said. "We were kind of wary that the negotiation was heading the direction it went, because we thought at one point the city is giving us something they cannot fulfill.
"We took them on their word and in good faith," he said.
Representatives from other unions Thursday said they're not prepared to bring the mayor's furlough proposal to their members for a vote, though talks continue.
"We know the city's in trouble financially," said Art Miller, president of the Modesto Police and Fire Non-Sworn Association.
"I'm hopeful and confident we'll come to some compromise," said Cecil Ridge, president of the Modesto City Firefighters Association, which, like the police union, is being asked to postpone raises.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.