The Turlock City Council heard about a number of critical unmet needs throughout City departments during a special budget workshop held on Saturday, including an emergency request to fund a $6 million project to replace Turlock’s failing emergency radio system.
While Turlock’s financial situation is stable, with revenues increasing every year for the past four years, if the Council were to approve funding for all the critical needs there would be no financial cushion if (or when, according to history) there’s an economic downturn.
In June 2017, the Council adopted a “baseline” budget that did not address any of the staffing shortfalls presented by City department heads at a previous budget workshop. On Saturday, the City Council held a special budget workshop meeting to consider the state of the City’s finances and hear the needs that department directors feel are now critical — with public safety issues being the direst.
The Fire Department is requesting an additional $1.03 million in funding for the current budget year, including $479,866 to hire three more firefighters and one deputy fire marshal.
“What we are experiencing now is a level of what I’d say firefighter fatigue in our ranks. We have some firefighters and engineers working 2,000 hours of overtime a year. When you have a firefighter on duty for their third day in a row, fourth day in a row, fifth day in a row, sixth day in a row, their level of acuity is going to go down,” said Fire Chief Gary Carlson.
“Asking for these three firefighters would help to alleviate some of those fatigue and overtime issues,” he continued.
The department also needs $200,000 in additional funds for vehicle replacements and $97,060 more than originally budgeted to replace safety clothing.
The Police Department is requesting an additional $670,148 in funding for the current budget year, including $208K to hire two police officers and $176K to hire two dispatchers.
In February, the City Council approved lateral new hire salary bonuses after hearing from Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar and what he described as an impending “calamity” for the city if the department cannot successfully recruit and retain police officers.
The Police department is allocated to staff 78 sworn positions, but currently only has 73 positions filled, which includes the chief and two captains. The department has been embarking on an ambitious recruiting program, but as new officers are coming in, others are leaving, so the department has made no real gains over the last two years.
“We are at a critical stage,” Amirfar said during the Feb. 13 Council meeting. “We have to stop the bleeding.”
The City is also in dire need of a new emergency radio system and the corresponding computer systems that are placed in police and fire vehicles.
Chief Amirfar painted a bleak picture of the current status of the radio system that’s over 25 years old. The original plan was to get a new radio system installed when the Public Safety Facility opened in 2013, but the Council decided it was too expensive. Instead, the City purchased backup equipment on eBay to move the old system into the new facility.
A year ago, a leak in the system took all radio communication down for the City of Turlock for eight hours, except for one channel that is used by the Fire Department. The radio system was dried out and restored. For the past two weeks, Amirfar reported that the radio system started having trouble once again and on Saturday an officer couldn’t get a call out due to static.
“This is a very big project. This has been kicked down the road for as long as I can remember…this can is up against the curb and there’s nowhere to kick it. It’s been kicked flat and there’s nothing in it. Either we do it or we stop providing services,” said Amirfar.
The $6 million project has $2.3 million in identified funding sources and approximately $3.7 million in unidentified funding.
While the Council agreed that there are critical needs in public safety, the question remains where the funding will come from.
“In light of all of this, I think that it might be a good idea to have on our next agenda looking into a special tax for public safety. We’re not going to be able to do this alone. Whether it’s for personnel and/or property and equipment, we need to figure this out. This is huge and we need the public to be aware and to support this,” said Council member Amy Bublak.
Mayor Gary Soiseth said that as the agenda had already been set for the Tuesday Council meeting, it could be put on the March 27 or April 10 meeting agendas.
Other 2017-18 budget requests presented to the Council on Saturday include: $318,357 for Administrative Services, with $95,714 to hire a deputy city clerk and $89,084 to hire a full time human resources technician; and $209,513 for Development Services – Engineering, with $120,905 to hire a traffic engineering technician.