TURLOCK — The city laid off its four new police officers before even hiring them.
In October, Police Chief Gary Hampton persuaded the City Council to accept a $1.2 million federal grant to pay for four officers' salaries over three years. But Hampton said Tuesday night that it's no longer a feasible plan.
The budget has continued to sour, and it's clear that each city department will be forced to make painful cuts in the next financial year.
"There is little reason in hiring officers today that you as a council will be forced to lay off in July," Hampton said.
Instead, he asked — and the council unanimously agreed — to reduce the number of sworn officer positions from 81 to 77, then use the grant to pay for the four positions and bring the ranks back up to 81. Of those, three are vacant jobs; one officer will get a layoff notice and then hopefully be rehired before it takes effect.
Hampton said even as he and his staff moved forward on the hires approved last year, advertising the jobs, accepting applications and conducting background checks, it became obvious that the financial outlook continued to worsen.
He said he hopes that using the federal money to pay for existing positions will prevent further reductions in staff.
"It's very difficult for me as your police chief to recommend proceeding with the proposal," Hampton said. "But ... it's my responsibility to make lemonade out of lemons and hopefully control the destiny of what's coming.
Detective Brandon Bertram, head of the union that represents police officers, said he was reluctantly in favor of the idea.
"I never never thought that I would be here discussing this," he told the council.
Hampton gave a presentation at an emergency meeting of the union board last week. "In light of those facts, our board has voted unanimously to support this resolution," Bertram said. "It's very uncomfortable for us, but this is absolutely the most responsible decision that we can make."
Hampton pledged that residents will continue to see a strong law enforcement presence, though some routine services may suffer.
"This organization will not be going backward," he said. "We're just slowing our pace of progress."
Council members said they appreciated the proposal. Councilman Kurt Spycher pointed out that if the city had made the hires and then laid off the officers, it would be on the hook for unemployment payments.
"I appreciate that you have done this, and that the union that follows your lead agrees," Councilman Ted Howze told Hampton. "We're getting some more cooperation through some very difficult times."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.