Calif. department to cut police force; will lose 25 LEOs

Adam Ashton
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. — Budget cuts the Modesto City Council approved Tuesday night will slice services most residents take for granted.

Police, fire and parks staffing will diminish through attrition to shore up Modesto's budget with $8.6 million in cuts to city departments. The Police Department will lose 25 officers and nine civilian posts, drawing down its sworn ranks to about 260.

Also, the council, by a 5-1 vote, signed off on other accounting adjustments that slash spending by $5.8 million.

Some measures include recouping money from the Modesto Redevelopment Agency, raising a franchise fee that shows up on Comcast cable bills and reducing the city's contribution to a workers compensation fund. The Comcast decision requires one more vote from the council next month.

Councilman Bob Dunbar was the lone vote against the cuts. He said he would rather tap Modesto's $10.2 million reserve than let the city's police ranks dwindle.

"The necessity to maintain our public safety at our current level ... is important enough over the next two or three years to find reductions in other places," he said.

But Dunbar's colleagues feared Modesto's budget outlook could worsen over the next year, depending on how long it takes the economy to recover from its housing slump and national credit crunch.

Mayor Jim Ridenour worries the Legislature could turn to cities to balance its books.

"I don't think we can sit back and say, 'Next year,' " Ridenour said.

Other cuts that could affect residents include shutting a pool at Whitmore Park, ending a spring activity program at Graceada Park and leaving vacant three building inspector positions. The Fire Department stands to lose nine firefighters and a new engine.

The council in June passed a $135 million budget for its gen-eral fund, which pays for most city services other than utilities. About 70 percent of the money was earmarked for the police and fire departments.

City Finance Director Wayne Padilla started collecting dark financial news over the summer, showing tax revenues declining and unexpectedly low savings from the previous financial year.

In October, he received a report from a consultant advising him the city likely would garner about $1.2 million less in sales tax revenue than it had bud- geted.

Councilwoman Janice Keating said those reports shouldn't have been a surprise. Further, she said she wanted to halt any spending that isn't called for in the revised budget.

"A million and a half dollars shouldn't sneak up on us overnight," Keating said. "I would like to see us make a commitment to freezing everything."

Community activist Robert Stanford was the only person to address the council about the cuts. He urged representatives to avoid reducing police staffing.

Councilman Garrad Marsh replied that the city didn't have many options.

"Essentially, we only have money for police, fire, parks and roads," he said. "Which one do you want to cut?"

Modesto last trimmed its budget two years ago with cuts that fell heavily on its Community Forestry Division, which man-ages the city's trees. The council did not consider cuts to that program this year.

Copyright 2007 The Modesto Bee

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