As Santa Rosa City Council debates how to fix a budget deficit caused by delayed revenue and rising labor costs, cutting public safety spending becomes a focus of discussion.
The council is due to hold hearings on Tuesday evening and possibly approve the city’s budget for the coming fiscal year.
But after a string of shootings in recent years and a surge in 911 calls as the pandemic re-opened, several councilors on Monday spoke out against proposed cuts to nine vacant police posts in Santa Rosa.
The city needs to fill a $ 9.8 million gap in its proposed overall fund budget of $ 190 million. It’s rich in one-time cash – from PG&E comparisons on forest fire damage and federal stimulus dollars from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act.
About $ 40 million of the $ 95 million paid out by PG&E from the 2017 firestorm was diverted to the city’s reserves in February. But because of the city’s long-term structural deficit – fueled by rising salaries and costs related to employee pensions, coupled with a decline in sales tax revenues – all departments have been asked to cut budgets by 5%.
Two council members, retired Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm and John Sawyer, said they would like to see some of this sudden money go to police and fire departments to avoid cuts this year.
“These restrictions on public safety, both with the fire department and the police, frighten me a lot,” Sawyer said in a Monday interview.
Police officers have also stepped in, saying the agency’s response times to high priority calls have been hampered by seven vacancies from sworn officers to avoid layoffs.
The city’s total draft budget, estimated at $ 473.7 million, supports 1,250 employees, including services that range from public safety and public works to administrative functions. The police and fire brigade have the largest share of the smaller general fund with around 34% and 24% respectively.
In a video posted on the department’s Facebook page Friday night, Police Chief Ray Navarro alluded to the budget burden as he discussed his officers’ response to seven shootings in the city over the past three weeks. Three more gunshots occurred in neighboring areas during the same period, a snapshot of the surge in violent crime across Sonoma County.
Three shots in Santa Rosa occurred recently in city parks: Comstock Park on May 29; Dutch Flohr Park on June 3rd; and Bayer Park & ââGardens on June 9th. Police say gang activity may have played a role in the shootings at Comstock Park, as well as a May 21 incident on Eddy Drive and Robin Way.
Of the three incidents outside of Santa Rosa, the next occurred on Dec.
In the video, Navarro complained that the department’s gang crime team was disbanded 18 months ago “because of the low staffing of the patrols”. Still, he tried to reassure the public that detectives and patrolmen were doing their best to solve the crimes and prevent further violence.
“As staffing and call volumes allow, we patrol with targeted enforcement in areas most affected by the rise in violent crime,” said Navarro.
The gang crime disbanded once had seven detectives and a sergeant, said Captain John Cregan of the Special Services Division. The department was hoping to temporarily suspend the team, but the frozen positions prevented recovery, Cregan said.
Overall, the department will receive 174 sworn officer posts, up from 181 in 2019 if the proposed cut is successful.
With the pandemic limits now relaxed, Cregan said the department is seeing an increase in emergency calls and response times to the highest priority calls, which are often life at stake, averaged 6 minutes and 53 seconds, he said. Department heads want this average to be six minutes or less, he said.
“Now we’re really going to understand the impact of the staff shortage,” said Cregan.
Councilor Eddie Alvarez, who represents Roseland and the southwestern part of Santa Rosa, near several recent shootings, said the city had not adequately funded the kind of services that could prevent violence.
“In the past, my district has been underfunded on all sorts of public safety issues,” said Alvarez. “The problem is much bigger than just the police,” he said. âThe improvement of services and the improvement of the quality of life. What we are seeing now are the consequences of a lack of investment. “
Alvarez would like to see increased investment in after-school programs, childcare and professional training, he said. The pandemic has left the city’s younger generations – including those vulnerable to gang recruitment – isolated and hopeless, he said.