Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 21, 2010

Palo Alto may keep crossing guards, traffic team

City Council committee turns down plan to cut funding for crossing-guard program and police traffic officers

by Gennady Sheyner

Facing a crowd of Palo Alto children wearing bike helmets backed by concerned parents, a City Council committee voted unanimously Tuesday to spare crossing guards and traffic enforcers from the falling city budget ax.

The committee recommendation must be approved by the full council as part of the overall budget, scheduled for sometime in June.

The council's Finance Committee voted to reject recommendations in City Manager James Keene's proposed budget to eliminate the five-officer traffic team and the school crossing-guard program in fiscal year 2011, which begins on July 1.

With the city facing a projected $7.3 million budget gap, the proposed budget included both programs on its list of cuts.

But after receiving a flurry of e-mails and hearing from a group of parents, the committee agreed to keep the programs in place. Most speakers at the committee's review of the Police Department budget told the council that the traffic programs are needed to ensure children are able to get to and from school safely.

"I don't know how anyone, including people in the school district, will be able to live with themselves if just one child is hurt and killed by this decision," Nina Bell, who lives next to Terman Middle School, said before the committee took its vote.

The traffic officers and the crossing guards were the only positions the committee chose to remove from Keene's proposed list of budget cuts. The Police Department still stands to lose two investigators specializing in financial fraud and identity theft; a crime analyst who collects demographic data from traffic stops; and the officer charged with enforcing the city's leaf-blower ordinance.

And the traffic team, while remaining intact, would lose one of its five positions.

Police Chief Dennis Burns told the committee Tuesday that the department has lost 12 sworn-officer positions and 14.5 civilian positions since 2003 and has seen its force shrink from 108 sworn officers in 1975 to 85 in 2011, assuming the full council approves the committee's recommendations in late June.

He said the cuts were particularly difficult to make this year because the department has already reduced staff to close budget gaps in previous years.

"We'll take the remaining resources we have and make sure we do the best we can with them," Burns said.

The loss of the two detectives specializing in financial crime is expected to impact the department particularly severely, given the increasingly prominent role of technology and the high frequency of identity-theft crimes in Palo Alto, Burns said.

He said the department would not be able to investigate the same number of fraud cases with the two officers gone.

The committee also backed Keene's recommendations to increase fines for parking violations by $3 in July and directed staff to consider a $6 jump in fines.

The city also hopes to come to an arrangement with the Palo Alto Unified School District to split the funding for the city's school-resource officer.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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