Photo by Tax Credits via Flickr Creative Commons

Fresno Melts Down

By: Dan Waterhouse

As 2009 draws to a close, some 125 City of Fresno employees know that their New Year’s Eve will not be a joyous one: When they wake up on New Year’s Day, they will be unemployed due to an immediate $28 million hole in the municipality’s budget, which if nothing is done will grow to $88 million in six years.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s budget wonks said that projected revenues had not materialized and expenses had gone up. To temporarily close the gap, she said that major cuts had to be made immediately, hence the layoffs. Among the laid-off employees are 92 civilian staff in the police department.

According to Police Chief Jerry Dyer, 16 dispatchers, 25 community service officers, all the cadets, some administrative clerks, crime scene investigators, property room personnel, data transcribers, the firing range masters and staff assistants were laid off. Dyer added that 23 police officer slots stayed vacant (which is expected to grow to 38). In the last 12 months, the department has lost 249 employees (or 50% of the civilian employees).

Swearengin has been frank in saying that the next wave of cuts—and there will be a next wave in 2010—will include sworn officers. Sources say that Swearengin has returned federal grant money intended for police officer hiring.

Playing out in the background are the Metropolitan Museum and Granite Park debacles, the dire condition of the Grizzlies minor league baseball team and the parking garage that no one needs. Bluntly put, the City Council spent money like drunken sailors for years. They took endless rounds of federal dollars to beef up the police department, knowing full well the general fund did not have the wherewithal to sustain those jobs. But they thought the artificially induced hyper-housing market would last forever. It did not. Anyone with an IQ higher than “warm” had to know it could not.

Almost as soon as the cuts were announced, the screaming started: “Wahhh!! You can’t cut public safety!”

As far as the complaints about Swearengin returning the federal grant dollars are concerned, she has to. All that fed cash comes with a big string attached: If you use it to hire cops, you cannot lay them off. If you know that you are going to lay off officers in less than a year, why take the money in the first place? It is more prudent to hand it back and move on.

I expect to see pressure from the public safety supporters to reduce or eliminate things like code enforcement, downtown revitalization (which needs serious reexamination) and the homeless re-housing efforts.

Here are my thoughts for greater efficiencies or cuts:

  • The police department (PD) has no business providing social welfare services. Right now, the PD is funding tattoo removal and job training as part of the “Mayor’s Gang Initiative” put in place when Alan “Bubba” Autry was sinking—running—the city’s ship. Social welfare services are the province of the county, not the city. Likewise, the federal grant money funding positions through the police department over at the Salvation Army drug treatment program should be retrieved and returned to Washington, D.C., or used to fund positions inside the department.
  • Streamline the department’s organization chart. Eliminate two of the deputy chiefs; the PD operated just fine with three for many years. Consider re-centralizing patrol. Consider closing two of the policing districts. Examine the specialized units to see which ones can be reduced or eliminated outright.
  • Cold property crimes must be added to the no-report category whenever there is no suspect(s), no fingerprints, no witnesses or identifiable property. In fact, the department discontinued taking non-injury collision reports many years ago. Whenever there are no positive solvability factors, these reports are simply filed and no follow-up occurs unless the victim develops new information. The day when the PD has time to document losses for insurance companies has long passed.
  • End the territorial expansion dreams. The City can no more afford to take over the county islands than I can. It is time for the city to work cooperatively with the county, not continue to pick fights over whether certain county firefighters are “adequately trained” enough to respond to calls inside the city limits.

Speaking of the fire department, (sadly) it is time for it to hand over responsibility for the vast majority of “red light and siren” medical aid responses to American Ambulance. The City’s paramedic program was abolished years ago. Although all City firefighters are certified emergency medical technicians, they are limited in what patient care they can provide compared to American’s paramedics. American Ambulance service delivery has improved to a point that probably more than 85% of the time fire units are cancelled while enroute by dispatchers. It is not uncommon to hear a fire unit that had been “enroute” for several minutes immediately report “available in quarters” when acknowledging being cancelled.

The reality is that government in general, and the City of Fresno in particular, has to reinvent how services are provided. The old way of doing things is unsustainable in the current economic climate.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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