Not enough to go around
City Council revisits money troubles for cops, firefighters and trees
In June, when Chico City Council members passed an $118.3 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17, they did so knowing that plenty could go wrong. It was possible that two major public safety grants would fall through (they did) and the city wouldn’t have enough money to maintain its urban forest through the fiscal year (it doesn’t).
The council agreed then to revisit the budgets for fire protection, police and tree maintenance this fall. That time came during the panel’s regular meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 1).
In recent years, the council has supported greater staffing of the Chico Police Department, but the city is still 10 officers short of 2007-08 levels, when the force was 102 police officers strong, said Chief Mike O’Brien.
In May, the department applied for $500,000 in federal funding through the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS Hiring Program, which would have paid for four additional officers for three years. Due to stiff national competition, the application was denied last month.
Another challenge is the department’s decaying portable radio system, which can’t encrypt transmissions—allowing anyone with a certain smartphone app to listen in on police communications—or transmit an officer’s GPS location in case he or she is incapacitated.
“A radio is an officer’s lifeline,” O’Brien said. “As your chief, I take this concern very seriously.”
He requested the council’s blessing to explore rebuilding the radio system and return at a future meeting with an estimated cost.
Chico’s Street Tree Division already has burned through most of its budget for fiscal year 2016-17, announced Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance. What’s more, the three-worker crew has a backlog of 800 to 1,000 calls for service, exposing the city to potential liability from property damage or injuries caused by falling limbs.
Gustafson requested a one-time infusion of $150,000 that would pay contractors for pruning and large tree removals. Vice Mayor Sean Morgan commented that every department head in the city could use $150,000 and suggested the tree crew can make do without.
Robin McCollum offered a counterpoint during the public comment portion of the meeting. He observed that the police and fire departments, though understaffed, are at least functional. “We do not have a functional tree crew,” he said.
The Chico Fire Department is facing an immediate staffing shortage, according to a report prepared by Interim Fire Chief Bill Hack.
In 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Chico Fire a $5.3 million grant—Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER)—that paid for 15 firefighters. However, that grant is set to expire on Jan. 1, and an attempt to secure a second, $4.1 million SAFER grant recently was rejected.
City officials can’t say they didn’t see it coming. The 2016-17 budget assumed that the fire department would secure the second SAFER grant, and members of the council recognized that there wasn’t a backup plan if it fell through.
Hack outlined four options for moving forward: 1) Make no budget adjustment, terminate the 15 employees hired under SAFER, decrease the department’s daily staffing from 17 to 13 firefighters, and close Fire Station 4 at the Chico Municipal Airport. 2) Reduce daily staffing to 16 firefighters and close Station 4 at a cost of $320,000 through the end of the fiscal year. 3) Maintain daily staffing at 17 firefighters—but lay off about five of those hired under SAFER—and keep all six stations open for $545,600. 4) Retain all employees hired under SAFER for $721,400.
Hack recommended option 3. “My preference is to maintain a physical presence in all six fire stations,” he said.
The council’s decision was complicated by timing. In December, Hack will present the council with the Standards of Response Coverage Plan, a data-based report that will pinpoint inefficiencies in the city’s fire protection strategies and guide the department for the next 30 to 50 years.
The city has about $2.3 million in carryover funds from last fiscal year, said City Manager Mark Orme. Though its budget policy is to backfill reserves, the council could choose to direct that money toward the expenses requested by O’Brien, Gustafson and Hack.
When it came to a vote, the council’s progressive bloc played tug-of-war with the conservative majority in an effort to fund the Street Tree Division.
Councilwoman Tami Ritter made a motion to give O’Brien the green light on pursuing upgrades to the police department’s radio system, follow Hack’s staffing recommendation for two months after the SAFER grant expires on Jan. 1 and direct $150,000 to tree maintenance.
Fully staffing the fire department until March would give the council time to review the Standards of Coverage report and for city staff to develop a long-term plan, Ritter said.
Her motion failed by a split vote down party lines. Morgan made a counter-motion that omitted tree funding. That passed 6-1—with Councilman Andrew Coolidge dissenting—ensuring that the fire department will remain fully staffed through February.
Councilwoman Ann Schwab proposed allocating $100,000 to tree maintenance, but her motion failed by another split vote. In a last-ditch effort, Ritter proposed directing $69,000 to tree maintenance. Before voting no, Morgan quipped that “it feels like we’re pandering to the lowest common denominator.”
“We are,” Mayor Mark Sorensen agreed, and voted yes. Ritter’s motion passed 5-2, with Morgan and Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer dissenting.