State

Modesto Mayor's proposal calls for big police, fire hits

Modesto may be forced to shed 60 positions, including some in the police and fire departments, to close a $12.7 million general fund shortfall.

The mayor's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 reveals the city's worsening financial picture.

Public safety would take the brunt of the cuts, with police losing 35 positions and the Fire Department losing 10. The Police Department would shed 13 sworn officers and a dozen community services officers, more than a third of the nonsworn officers who respond to burglaries, stolen vehicle reports and vandalism.

City Manager Greg Nyhoff said 21 of the 60 positions are vacant and the number of layoffs could be reduced as the city negotiates with employee labor groups over pay concessions.

The budget again calls for nonunion employees to take a 5 percent salary cut in the form of furlough days.

"It caught us all off guard," said Art Miller, president of the union representing community services officers, on Friday. "I don't think any of us expected the deficit to hit $12.7 million."

Mayor Jim Ridenour said the budget aims to maintain essential services despite continued erosion of the city's revenue. For the first time since 2003, general fund revenues are projected to fall below $100 million.

Modesto will keep 100 patrol officers on the streets and all 11 fire stations open, but response times will be slower for lower priority police calls. The Fire Department would lose one engine company, which would mean less backup coverage during major incidents and training.

Also, the public can expect to see less park maintenance and tree pruning, cuts to recreation and deferred road repairs.

The city will be slower to respond to service calls. As an example, it may take three months, instead of three weeks, for the city to replace a broken streetlight, Nyhoff said.

The dimmer streets and crumbling roads are the markings of the third straight year of operating budget reductions for the city. If all of the personnel cuts are made, the city will have lost 138 positions in two years.

The proposed budget carries forward the pay raises granted in previous labor contracts and other ongoing personnel costs.

The negotiations with unions won't avert all of the layoffs.

"We won't save everybody," the mayor said. "Everybody is working hard together. I am expecting some good reports from the negotiators."

The Modesto Police Officers Association has submitted a proposal to reduce costs without so many layoffs, although details were not disclosed. Last year, the police union rejected the city's proposal to postpone pay raises, resulting in layoffs. But the positions were restored when the city received federal law enforcement funding.

"Our organization is trying to work with the city to resolve these budget issues," said Tony Arguelles, president of the MPOA. "If you have this many layoffs, there is no doubt it would have an impact on the department and the citizens of Modesto."

Under the budget plan, the department would lose eight police officers, two detectives, two sergeants and a lieutenant. Six of the 35 threatened police positions are vacant.

When the number of officers is cut, the department commits available staff to respond to major incidents such as robberies and violent crimes, Arguelles said. But it loses the ability to have fully staffed gang, narcotics and auto theft units.

Miller said he feared that pay concessions won't save many of the community services officers, whose salaries and benefits will cost the city $763,000 next year.

"We only saved three positions when we took the 96 hours of furlough time this year," he said. "I don't know if we can make a large dent in that number with concessions."

The city's parks and recreation department would shed the equivalent of 8½ full-time positions. The potential impact: less tree trimming, elimination of adult softball and fewer people to run other recreation programs.

Community and economic development would have to do without a code enforcement officer and associate planner, and three positions would be reduced to part time. Ridenour said the department has less work to do with the downturn in building.

City officials will present the budget to the city's finance committee Monday morning; the committee has other budget workshops set for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. After hearing public comments, the committee will make budget recommendations to the City Council.

Councilman Garrad Marsh, a Finance Committee member, said that with the revenue declines, the city has no choice but to reduce public safety costs.

"More than 70 percent of our budget is police and fire," Marsh said. "We put the bulk of the cuts last year on other departments. More than half of the positions cut last year were managers and supervisors."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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