Fresno public safety funding central in trash debate

The Fresno BeeMay 4, 2013 

Fresno is seeing an odd series of events: Plummeting crime, a shrinking police force, political temperatures shooting through the roof.

It's all adding even more fuel to the Measure G/trash-outsourcing inferno.

As he does every spring, Chief Jerry Dyer is pitching his "State of the Fresno Police Department" outlook and -- no surprise here -- it's full of gloom.

There aren't enough sworn officers. Civilian positions are being decimated. Service levels continue to erode. The prison-warders keep dumping on Fresno. Things will get worse without more money.

"We can't continue cutting expenses in the Police Department without severely compromising the safety of our citizens," Dyer says.

The chief typically delivers this message in the City Council chamber during May-June budget meetings, where department heads are known to exaggerate a bit in the fight over scarce general fund dollars.

This time Dyer may not be exaggerating his department's woes, yet he is forced to make his case not in a public forum, but from behind his desk. Strange as it sounds, that's because Fresno, for the first time in its history, will go to the polls on June 4 in a special election to determine something as simple as who picks up the trash.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin, citing major problems in City Hall's long-term budget, wants to hand over the city's 105,000 home trash accounts to locally based Mid Valley Disposal. The eight-year deal gives the city a $1.5 million signing bonus and a net general fund boost of about $2.5 million a year in franchise fees.

The contract is devilishly complex, but a sticking point is the approximately 150 city jobs that would be affected. Several city unions are fighting back with all their might, saying the Mid Valley deal is both too good to be true and not a wise answer to obvious money problems. They gathered enough petition signatures last winter to give voters the final say.

That's Measure G: Should the outsourcing ordinance be adopted?

City Hall politics, never the most transparent of affairs, suddenly were turned upside-down.

Swearengin, leader of the Yes on G forces, is campaigning hard with a simple message: Mid Valley's money is vital to Fresno's quality of life.

At the top of her warnings: The Police Department, already hammered by four years of recession-driven cuts, tips into serious decline if Measure G fails.

In a city unable to forget the nearly 100 homicides-a-year terror of the early-1990s, public safety pushes the button of many voters.

But because the police budget is connected to Measure G, and the binding referendum is now a political battle, city officials on both sides are careful what they say on city property. Campaigning from such public sites is a legal no-no.

That's why Swearengin goes to churches to spread her message. That's why Dyer speaks at police headquarters in only the broadest terms about departmental challenges. That's why neither goes to the council, which controls the purse strings, for debate.

And yet, despite these restrictions, a mere two words are sufficient to explain why both sides' efforts to influence public perception of the Fresno Police Department's health may be the turning point in Measure G's fate.

Demagoguery. Reason.

Which one is the motivation whenever the topic of cops comes up on the campaign trail?

Swearengin "is using the fear factor," says Council President Blong Xiong, probably that divided body's most passionate opponent of outsourcing. The mayor is doing nothing but "trying to scare people."

Swearengin sticks to her message.

"Further cuts to public safety in the city of Fresno are not a good idea," she says. "We need to do everything we can to keep that from happening."

Despite the cuts, Dyer says, he is pleased with his department's performance.

"Surprisingly, we have been able to continue to reduce violent crime," he says.

Homicides are down 23.5% in the first four months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. Rapes are lower by 56.3%. Aggravated assaults are down almost 10%.

Violent crimes in general are down 6.2% and property crimes have seen a 9.5% drop. A 5.2% uptick in robberies is one of the few blemishes on another otherwise glittering report card.

Statistical trends are less clear when viewed from five- and 10-year perspectives.

For example, there were 3,504 violent crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault -- in 2003 compared to 2,748 in 2012. The 2012 total is about even with the 2008 total (2,782).

In that period, Fresno's population rose from about 448,000 in 2003 to 505,000 in 2012.

It's a different story for property crimes -- burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, arson. There was a total of 27,800 property crimes in 2003. That dropped to 21,186 in 2009, then shot up to 25,871 in 2012.

Two other statistics help give context to Dyer's analysis of his department.

Calls for service topped 430,000 in 2007 through 2009, but dropped to just over 417,000 in 2012. And officers a decade ago filed more than 120,000 reports a year, but that fell to about 91,000 a year in 2011 and 2012.

"When it comes to our ability to keep people safe and reduce crime, I think we're still doing very well," Dyer says. "The areas where we're lacking are in service."

Fresno's cops get their money from a lot of places. There's an officer who tries to stop liquor sales to minors; the state picks up that tab. Fresno Unified School District contracts for on-campus officers. Federal grants have long been a gold mine, though they're drying up.

But the general fund -- money spent at the discretion of City Hall -- is the biggest pot. The general fund budget was over $250 million when Swearengin took office in 2009. The economy already was tanking. The general fund budget dropped sharply, then inched its way back to this year's approximately $230 million.

Swearengin administration officials are quick to note how much money they have compared to long-term budget estimates made during former Mayor Alan Autry's second term. Those estimates were used to make long-term spending decisions, such as bond deals.

In light of expected revenues, current administration officials say, they've had to deal with more than $100 million in general fund cuts.

More than half of the general fund has always gone to cops. That wasn't a big problem when money was really flowing. The second-biggest general fund recipient is fire (which also has seen service and steep personnel cuts). But in the good old days there always was enough money for a strong parks department and an aggressive pothole-filling program in public works.

The dominoes of financial doom fell rapidly on Swearengin during the Great Recession's early days. Employee contracts and bond deals locked in spending as revenues declined. The general fund spigot to public works was closed. Parks was cut so deeply that maintenance is now done mainly by volunteers.

The general fund gets most of its money from property and sales taxes. In a region known as "Appalachia of the West," Swearengin had scant hope of seeing a quick rebound in those money streams.

The mayor and City Manager Mark Scott asked unions with binding contracts for voluntary givebacks to stanch the general fund bleeding. They had some success, but not enough to satisfy them.

Swearengin's business relationship with the powerful Fresno Police Officers Association and its shrewd president, Jacky Parks, generated concessions in the beginning. Swearengin wants more, and now the two can barely stomach each other.

All this time, budget numbers stayed bleak. The general fund budget gap at one time was estimated to exceed $10 million. City officials now think they'll make ends meet in the fiscal year ending June 30, but project a $6 million gap next year if help doesn't come.

Some of that "help" already is here, and it comes from what Dyer calls his department's declining service.

The Police Department in 2009 -- when the Great Recession really hit Fresno and overall crime had dropped 23% within the previous six years -- had 849 sworn officers. It was an all-time high for Fresno and, at 1.75 officers per 1,000 population, just shy of the 1.8/1,000 ratio recommended by a department strategic plan.

Events forced Swearengin to travel two paths.

The Police Department had to be scaled back. It was an easy (though by no means painless) task on the department's civilian side, where the clerks and community service officers and cadets did much of the grunt work that freed sworn officers to chase bad guys. Nearly 60% of the almost 500 non-sworn employees were simply laid off or lost and not replaced through attrition.

Why do car-burglary victims now report online? Why does it sometimes take two or three days for an officer to respond to a business break-in? Why are sworn officers doing mandatory jobs once handled by clerks? The clear-cutting of these non-sworn positions is the answer.

The officers themselves weren't safe, even though they have a no-layoff contract. Attrition (retirement, resignations, etc.) proved to be as effective as pink slips.

The sworn-officer force has shrunk by more than 100 since 2009. It's not unusual for an officer to pull in more than $100,000 a year in salary and benefits, so the savings were considerable.

It still wasn't enough to keep Fresno from the brink of insolvency. The city's credit rating dropped to junk status. The city's auditor issued a "going concern" warning -- accounting-speak for the death watch. Scott worried about finding cash to meet spring payrolls.

Then, in just the past few months, Swearengin and Scott found an answer.

More police officers than expected were leaving the force. The administration simply stopped hiring replacements.

Instead of ending this fiscal year with 730 officers as originally projected, Dyer expects to have as few as 713 by June 30. He and Scott say the number likely will drop below 700 next fiscal year if nothing changes.

That would knock the officer/1,000 population ratio to below 1.4. Dyer says this would come at the same time that Gov. Jerry Brown's prison realignment and the Fresno County jail's staffing challenges are adding a dangerous new dynamic to local streets.

Scott told the City Council last month that he probably will be able to balance the books this year, but only because he's not replacing the officers he is supposed to.

"Is that the service level we want to live with?" Scott said. "I don't think it is."

In law enforcement, Dyer says, "it's hard to catch up when you lose your momentum."

Perhaps it's already fading.

Dyer said the loss of 16 dispatchers means it now takes an average of 10 seconds to answer 911 calls, compared to under three seconds several years ago. Some calls, he said, aren't answered for more than 20 seconds.

The department for years averaged under seven minutes in responding to life-threatening emergencies. Dyer said the average is now 7 minutes 30 seconds.

"Sometimes that 30 seconds can be the difference between life and death," he says.

The department at any one time used to average about 5% of its sworn-officer roster on long-term absence. Today, Dyer says, that figure has jumped to 10%.

He says he has studied the issue, but hesitates to publicly dig into possible causes. The effect on the public is fewer officers on the streets, he says.

Dyer attributes the declining crime numbers in part to an emphasis on fighting the bad guys where they operate. The department is data-driven, he says. "Hot spots" identified by statistics get special attention, for example.

But that officer-heavy strategy has consequences for other aspects of modern policing, Dyer says.

For instance, it was barely a decade ago that Fresnans were up in arms about all the red-light runners and the mayhem caused by drunken drivers. Dyer responded by beefing up the traffic division.

That division now has been cut by one-third, Dyer says.

Beginning this month, Dyer starts what he calls his "summer deployment plan." For the next five months all investigators -- such as homicide, domestic violence, robbery -- will be yanked off their regular jobs one weekend per month to pull a night shift on patrol.

The violent crime impact team, formed in 2010 in the wake of eight gang-related shootings within two weeks, has been disbanded, Dyer says.

Dyer has no trouble summarizing: "It's a critical time for us."

All this police woe in a city as broke and dangerous as Fresno would seem to give Swearengin an almost guaranteed winning hand on Measure G.

That's when the police union's Parks enters the fray and evens things up.

Parks outguns Dyer in bemoaning the department's sorry state.

"We're like a cancer patient," Parks said.

His litany of problems seems endless: Shortage of bullets and bullet-proof vests; insufficient training; declining officer morale; citizens so fed up with bad service that they don't bother reporting many crimes (hence the big drop in police reports).

Parks said some police cars are so beat-up that the sirens don't work -- yet they're still in service.

Parks dismisses the crime numbers.

Fresnans "want us to go out and catch the bad guys," he says. "But what we really do is collect statistics, put them in categories and make it seem like things aren't bad. Don't be fooled -- they're bad."

If things in the department don't improve, Parks says, as many as 40 officers might leave the force (retirement or career-change) by year's end.

Yet, Parks and his union hate Measure G. Self-interest is the main reason, and this will play out long after Measure G's votes are counted and forgotten.

Swearengin has made no secret of her desire to rein in police compensation. She plans to struggle along until 2015, when the cops contract expires and she has the strongest hand.

Parks wants the mayor's union strategy discredited in the public's eye long before he sits down to the negotiating table. That's why the cops gave $25,000 to January's signature-gathering drive and $22,500 for the Measure G campaign.

"What our citizens need to understand is that Measure G isn't the answer -- it's just peanuts," Parks says. "It's just part of her plan to downsize government."

Swearengin has heard it all before. She answered the critics last year with her "fiscal sustainability policy," whose gist is simple: Services suffer because municipal workers in a city as poor as Fresno are paid too much.

Outsourcing opponents have pursued several strategies to foil Swearengin's effort to tie Measure G to public safety.

Council Member Oliver Baines, an outsourcing opponent and former full-time Fresno police officer, says often from the dais that the city "doesn't have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem." He and other outsourcing foes have suggested a special tax -- perhaps something like the Measure Z sales tax that saved the city's zoo.

But such talk has waned in recent months, and the political hurdles to put such a tax before voters are formidable.

Some suggest borrowing from the city's reserve accounts to boost public safety until the local economy improves. Swearengin says that's how the city got into the $36 million (now down to $18 million) "negative fund balance" hole that has Wall Street predicting Fresno as California's next bankrupt city.

Some outsourcing opponents say it's not fair for working men and women (for example, about 100 of the affected jobs belong to trash-truck drivers) to pay for City Hall's foolish decisions. Granite Park, Chukchansi Park, the Metropolitan Museum -- those financial headaches weren't approved by blue-collar employees.

Swearengin says she didn't approve them, either, but she's stuck cleaning up the mess.

In the end, outsourcing opponents are asking voters to separate the two issues. Public safety financing is a much bigger challenge than a single trash contract, they say. Tackle cops and fire later with the entire community's help, they say.

For the next month, outsourcing opponents say, voters should focus on the Mid Valley deal.

Here, too, opponents' arguments are complex: Rates are sure to rise under Mid Valley, rate-payers could suffer if Mid Valley falters, city assets (trucks and bins) are being sold for a song, Mid Valley got the deal under unusual circumstances.

Marina Magdaleno, head of the blue-collar union representing the trash-truck drivers, says voters can cut to the chase by remembering the anti-outsourcing campaign theme: "No on G -- trash this risky deal."

Swearengin asks voters to step back and think.

"We have to stop the hemorrhaging and start to climb out of the hole we're in," Swearengin says. "That's what Measure G allows us to do."


Measure G

What: Special city of Fresno election to decide whether the residential trash outsourcing ordinance should be adopted

When: June 4

KEY DATES

Monday: Sample ballots and permanent vote-by-mail ballots to be mailed

May 20: Last day to register to vote in this election

May 28: Last day to file an application for a vote-by-mail ballot

More information: Check out the Fresno County Clerk's Office or (559) 600-VOTE

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

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