Modesto had shielded its Police Department from significant spending cuts since 2002 until the budget year that begins next week, though that investment hasn't resulted in more cops on the streets.
The city's $51.5 million law enforcement budget for 2009-10 is about $4.4 million greater than in 2004-05, when Modesto had 261 officers in uniform. This year, it'll have 253 if the city can salvage a deal with its primary police union to prevent layoffs in its ranks.
At least nine officers will lose their jobs Tuesday unless the two sides can get back to the bargaining table.
The stalemate has its roots in a sentiment among officers that they have been underpaid for years, making the Modesto Police Department a less attractive place to work.
Some believe the city did not raise police pay enough in flush years, when Modesto could have reduced a 17 percent gap in average wages among comparable agencies in the Central Valley.
Firefighters, by contrast, signed a four-year deal when Modesto's tax revenue peaked in 2006, netting better terms than police have been able to reach in their bargaining years. Firefighters have agreed to defer some of their raises to reduce the city's deficit.
"We have become the department that people come to to get hired, get some training and move onto greener pastures," said Tony Arguelles, president of the Modesto Police Officers Association.
City Council members acknowledge that they'd like to do more for officers, but say they can't this year because of the recession's crippling impact on Modesto's revenue.
They want the union to postpone raises for one year to save the city $820,000.
"Our goal is to keep as many cops on the street as possible. How do we get there? Defer your raises for one year," Councilwoman Janice Keating said.
The MPOA won't take that option unless it gets a no-layoff pledge. It also would prefer to keep the raises, but give up pay by taking 96 hours of furlough time.
"It would allow officers to understand, 'I have a job at this point,' " Arguelles said. The pledge would "take away the stress they could be unemployed at any time. That impacts the safety of the officer as he operates on a day-to-day basis. He needs to be 100 percent involved in his work, to ensure the safety of his work."
Officials won't budge
Elected officials are unwilling to give that guarantee in the face of what appears to be a worsening recession. No other union has secured a similar pledge.
"I'm kind of sorry that we aren't able to have that sort of trust with the MPOA so far," Councilman Garrad Marsh said, adding that providing raises to police officers could jeopardize relations with other city unions that have agreed to cut their pay over the next year.
"We would lose that trust with all of the organizations," he said.
Council members Keating and Will O'Bryant won their elections in 2002, when the city set aside $37.8 million for the Police Department out of its $98.8 million general fund. The department had 248 employees that year.
Since then, spending on law enforcement has increased to nearly half of the city's $107.4 million general fund.
O'Bryant said the new money went to equipment and rising police salaries and benefits. The city's police ranks peaked with 280 officers in 2007, just before the recession set in and prompted pervasive hiring freezes in local government.
"I don't know what it is," said O'Bryant, a retired Alameda County sheriff's detective. "Something's got (the MPOA) all pumped up against the council. We've never said no to them."
Arguelles says he doubts whether the city was bargaining in good faith when it negotiated a contract during the fall calling for 10 percent raises for cops over a little more than two years. Those raises would bring police median pay to $6,295 per month by late 2010 if the MPOA's contract continues without adjustments.
Arguelles says the city should slow down and see whether it will receive U.S. Justice Department grants that would provide cash to retain cops who otherwise would face layoffs.
City officials Thursday received a message from the Justice Department indicating Modesto could be in line for funding to support 13 officers, acting Police Chief Mike Harden said. Council members said they wouldn't count on that money until it's in their hands.
"It's positive news, but by no means is it an absolute," Harden said.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.