The trend will likely continue later this year when the city reassigns the traffic-enforcement team to field patrol, a switch that City Manager James Keene has called for in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. The move would freeze six full-time positions, some currently vacant, for a savings of $1.1 million.
Though these officers will continue to be responsible for traffic enforcement, Keene's budget acknowledges the shift would "lead to an overall reduction in the level of proactive traffic and parking enforcement."
The proposed switch is just the latest transformation for a team that in 2000 consisted of a sergeant and six police officers. Those numbers gradually dwindled, as city revenues decreased, following the dotcom bust and the 2008 recession.
But the latest switch has as much to do with the high number of vacancies as with the annual budget. The Police Department has 92 sworn positions, but 14 are currently vacant, three officers are on disability and one is undergoing academy training.
Police Capt. Ron Watson told the City Council's Finance Committee Tuesday evening that it's not unusual for the Police Department to have about half a dozen vacancies and a few people injured or getting training. In this case, the department had lost 13 staff in just 10 months, creating an "overarching challenge."
Reduced staffing in the police and fire departments isn't likely to end. Keene warned that the city would have "a lot of Swiss cheese in place in the organization from time to time." Over the past few years, a large number of Baby Boomers retired, as did dozens of other city workers who didn't want to see their benefits reduced.
"I think the next several years will have a lot of this kind of flux," Keene told the committee. "We don't want it, but it's a radical transformation because of a departure of a lot of people."
While the committee approved the shift of traffic officers, members stressed the importance of keeping the traffic-enforcement program in place for the long term.
Penny Ellson, chair of the PTA Council's Traffic Safety Committee, urged the council not to eliminate the traffic-enforcement team. Officers work with her committee to pinpoint safety problems and identify programs that work. Eliminating the team, she said, amounts to "lopping off the enforcement arm of the Safe Routes to Schools partnership."
The committee shared her view, agreeing to include a provision in the budget recommendation stating the city's commitment to continuing the Safe Routes to School Program.
The committee also directed staff to return in the fall with an update on the impact of the staffing freeze. Committee Chair Nancy Shepherd was one of several members who voiced concern about reducing the traffic-enforcement program.
"I will be looking at this very critically when it comes back, and I'll need to understand it better if this freeze goes forward," Shepherd said.
The Police Department's budget, which will be finalized and adopted in June, will also likely include a host of changes to the city's animal-services operation (see story on page YY) .
The Finance Committee also backed Keene's proposed budget for the Fire Department, which includes an elimination of Station 7 at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The U.S. Department of Energy decided last year not to keep an on-site fire station at the laboratory. The elimination of Station 7 allows the city to cut nine full-time positions for a net cost savings of $972,000. Keene had also proposed keeping six other positions vacant, but the committee decided to slash these positions as well for an additional net savings of $762,000. The positions could be reinstated later, if necessary, committee members said.
"I think we need to be making structural changes in this budget," said Councilman Greg Scharff, who proposed eliminating rather than freezing the positions.
One controversial proposal is the plan to use an engine at Station 2 to back up other stations. Geoffrey Blackshire, the Fire Department's acting deputy chief for emergency operations, said the station was strategically chosen because of its central location on Hanover Street. Response from this station is faster than from any other in the city, he noted.
But some residents from the nearby College Terrace neighborhood weren't thrilled about this proposal. Brent Barker of the College Terrace Residents Association told the Finance Committee that under the budget proposal, the station "would be cannibalized" during periods when there are vacancies elsewhere. He asked city officials to consider a different system, one in which the designated backup vehicle is rotated rather than restricted to Station 2.
"We believe the risk should be dispersed more broadly," Barker said.