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Police, fire positions on chopping block
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The surging costs of healthcare benefits could drive the City of Turlock to cut police and firefighters in an effort to keep budgets in check.

Facing $34 million in General Fund expenses, with only $30 million in projected revenues, Turlock City Council members will consider eliminating three police officer positions and one police lieutenant. Those positions are not currently filled, but the Turlock Police Department had been actively recruiting, Police Chief Rob Jackson said.

“We will probably see a reduction in what we can provide for the community,” Jackson said.

The reductions would remove 13 percent of Turlock Police's leadership staff, and reduce total sworn staffing from 81 to 77. Jackson said the change would reduce police response times, and impact the city's ability to aid in countywide law enforcement efforts.

The situation could become worse as more state prisoners are “realigned” to county jails and probation – an element of the 2011-2012 state budget. Those returning prisoners are expected to increase property crimes, on top of an already-seen 46 percent increase in auto theft year-over-year.

The layoffs are complicated by federal grant funding Turlock receives to fund four police officer positions. If Turlock reduces the positions, it could potentially lose the funding – and be denied future funding for three years. Jackson said he believes Turlock can apply for a fiscal hardship waiver, however, which would allow Turlock to retain the funding.

Turlock Fire faces a similar, though less dire, quandary. Though two administrative positions and one firefighter were already cut this year, plans to balance the budget require myriad operational cuts and the retirement of two firefighters. Those firefighters' positions would not be filled, leaving Turlock below its optimal fire staffing.

Other departments like Parks, Recreation, and Public Facilities face similar hardships. But after eliminating five positions a year ago, the department is left with little to cut.

“Staff is doing much more with less, as all the other divisions are,” said Parks, Recreation, and Public Facilities manager Allison VanGuilder.

But departments are left with little choice, given the magnitude of shortfalls.

Turlock Police faced a $1.3 million budget shortfall alone, primarily due to massive increases in benefit costs. Though administration made operational cuts, those cuts were outweighed by healthcare costs rising more than 20 percent.

Additionally, departments face the added challenge of expiring union concessions.

All city labor groups agreed to effective 5 percent pay cuts in 2010. But those are due to sunset Oct. 31, shifting costs back to the City of Turlock's budgets.

City Manager Roy Wasden said Turlock would negotiate with labor groups in the period between budget adoption – expected later this month – and the concession sunset. Should concessions not be extended, Turlock Police alone would face an $800,000 shortfall.

Though the city faces numerous challenges, tax revenues – accounting for 77 percent of the city's discretionary revenue – present a small bright spot. Sales tax is expected to grow 6 percent, while vehicle license fees and transient occupancy taxes are projected to grow between 2 and 4 percent.

Those increases aren't keeping up with rising benefit costs, though. And benefit costs will only continue to rise in future years, said Councilmember Forrest White.

“I think in the back of all of our minds, we better start projecting that in there,” White said. “If you think it took a big bite this year, it could be horrible in the next couple of years.”

The Turlock City Council expects to complete budget discussions at a special, 6 p.m. meeting on May 22 in the Yosemite Room of Turlock City Hall, 156 S. Broadway.