Year in Review: Voters affirm police and fire staffing

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comDecember 27, 2013 

There were no politicians on the ballot in Los Banos in 2013, but that didn’t mean voters didn’t have a decision to make.

The year began with city officials predicting the return of the housing boom, which would translate into more dollars for public safety. But no one could say precisely when housing would return.

In April, the council agreed to put an extension of the diversion of a portion of a half-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot. If approved, the money would continue to go toward salaries for emergency services personnel.

Voters had to decide whether they wanted to approve Measure K, which leaves Measure A intact for up to seven years.

Measure A was approved by 82 percent of the electorate in 2009. It allowed salaries of police officers and firefighters, which usually come out of the city’s general fund, to be paid through the half-cent sales tax approved in 2004, known as Measure P. The portion of the Measure P monies being used for salaries and benefits were previously being saved to build a new police station and firefighter training tower. Measure A was set to sunsets in January.

The Fire and Police Departments lobbied hard to get yes votes.

Police Chief Gary Brizzee said Measure A allowed his department to maintain its coverage of the city.

“We’ve obviously done more with less, but it would be devastating if we didn’t have Measure A,” Brizzee said in October.

Los Banos had seen an increase in “significant” crime, and the extension was needed for police to keep up with the uptick, Brizzee declared. He said he has six officers being paid through Measure A.

The department downsized because of declining property and sales tax dollars brought on by the housing market collapse of the past decade. At the peak of the housing market crisis, some city officials estimated that 35 percent of homes in town were in foreclosure. The Los Banos Police Department has 36 sworn officers. In 2006, there were 48 law enforcement positions.

Fire Chief Chet Guintini said his department relied mostly on volunteers, but being able to use the sales tax dollars for salaries meant a lot.

“Most people don’t realize we respond to five to six calls a day,” Guintini said. “Volunteers can’t do that and earn a living.”

The Fire Department had two fire captains paid through Measure A.

Measure K, which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, faced opposition

Baldo Salcido accused city officials of engaging in scare tactics. “It (Measure K) is not necessary,” Salcido said. “They want you to think that if it doesn’t pass, we’ll lose six police officers. The general fund pays those salaries, and there’s a $6 million surplus.”

The city approved a budget in June with anticipated general fund revenue at $9.9 million and expenditures at $10.2 million. The difference was made up by general fund reserve money, which at $6.5 million was nearly double the 2008 amount.

When Election Day arrived, Measure K was emphatically approved by voters with 2,144 votes (86.4 percent) in favor and 337 (13.5 percent) opposed.

Despite having authorization to continue using the sales tax money on salaries through 2020, City Manager Steve Carrigan said officials are developing plans to pay the eight police and Fire Department employees through the general fund in the next two to three years.

“We have a plan to bring two employees back into the general fund the first year (2014-15). The question will be do we go two (each year),” Carrigan said

Reporter Corey Pride can be reached at (209) 388-6563 .

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