City's Public Safety Cuts Worry Residents

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Three months into the new fiscal year, Sacramento residents are finding out exactly what the city’s $58 million budget deficit means to them.  For example, there are fewer fire engines and police cars on the streets.  These high-profile cuts to public safety have many residents sharply questioning City Hall.

**NOTE: Sacramento’s budget problems and the cuts to public safety will be two of the many topics at our upcoming mayoral debate.  Heather Fargo and Kevin Johnson square off Monday at 6:30pm on KXJZ.**
It’s a weekday morning at a fire station in South Sacramento, and there aren’t any fire fighters to staff Engine Number 10.  There’s only enough for the station’s fire truck and ambulance.  Captain Alex Macias says that’s a problem because neither of those vehicles have hoses. 
Macias: “If we pull up on scene, obviously we don’t have water.  So we have to rely on the next incoming engine company to get on scene before we can actually start fire fighting operations in an efficient and safe manner.” 
This is what a $58 million budget deficit looks like – at least for Sacramento’s fire department.  A few months ago, the city started closing one engine at a time for 48 hours.  These “rolling brownouts” save overtime and other costs, but increase response times for whatever neighborhood is affected that day. 
Macias: “We’re very worried about it because the fact that we don’t know how that’s all going to play out … to accommodate that now.” 

As Macias talks, a bell rings throughout the station, and one of those old dot matrix printers spits out a piece of paper.  The seven fire fighters immediately head off to a nearby car crash -- but with no one to staff it, the engine stays right where it is. 
Meanwhile, the police department is cutting its own overtime.  It’s also experimenting with assigning two patrol officers to every car to save gas, which means fewer cars on the streets.
These cuts sound bad, but they’re actually smaller than any other city department – just four percent to fire this fiscal year, and eight percent to police.  Everything else took a 20 percent hit.  Still, some residents say that’s unacceptable. 
Ashby: “In Natomas, prior to the budget problems, we already had a lack of resources.” 
Angelique Ashby is president of a Natomas community group called the Creekside Neighborhood Association. 
Ashby: “That lack of resources came from a public perception of not enough police officers, low visibility of police officers and not enough fire.” 
Ashby says many Natomas residents have been calling for more public safety for years.  The bad budget is pushing their progress back.
But Assistant City Manager Gus Vina says like every other California city, Sacramento faces a cold reality. 
Vina: “We’re a business, like any other business.  There’s only so much income, and that’s gonna drive your ability to provide services.  So like everybody else, we’re challenged now cause our income is down.  We are a full-service city.  We don’t offer just police and fire.” 
In other words, sure, the city council could restore the cuts to public safety.  But what would that leave for all the other services everyone’s come to expect?  Are Sacramento residents willing to deal with dirty parks, bumpy roads and closed libraries?
That’s not all.  Next year, the city will have to eliminate at least $45 million more.  So if every department’s low-hanging fruit is already gone, what’s left to cut? 
Vina: “That’s – that’s a great question, and that’s what we don’t know yet.” 
Vina says it’s his the first time working in local government where he’s had to cut services, but it’s probably the worst.
Still, Angelique Ashby says she’s not sure the city council and city manager realize how frustrated the community is right now. 
Ashby: “I think they think we’re in a budget crunch and we have a problem and we need to address it.  But when you talk about closing down police counters and not having the public’s ability to access the safety resources, that’s a crisis.” 
Ashby wants audits of every department, and says some newer programs may have to get cut.  She also says the city has to prioritize and put public safety first.  But Sacramento officials point out they’re at the mercy of the economy – and the entire city will be impacted.