As voters in Turlock consider whether or not to pass a sales tax measure to bolster dwindling City revenue sources, the City’s public safety departments are reaching critical staff shortage levels.
Turlock’s public safety agencies - the police and fire departments and dispatch - are struggling with a shortage of staff and obstacles in hiring and retaining staff, like higher pay and better benefit packages in other towns, are proving to be difficult to surmount. The Police and Fire unions both support the sales tax measure as a means to provide much-needed funding to staff the City’s public safety departments.
In the last week the Turlock Fire Department saw four experienced firefighters - three engineers and one captain - leave for probationary positions with the Alameda Fire Department. Interim Turlock Fire Chief Gary Carlson said he knows of two other fire engineers who are expected to leave for a neighboring department.
"Going back only three years (2017-2020) Turlock Fire has lost a total of 10 personnel (over 20%) of our workforce, not to retirements but to other departments," Carlson said. "This equates to 73 years of firefighting experience."
The fire department currently has 42 budgeted line positions, which covers battalion chiefs, captains, engineers and firefighters, and two budgeted chief officer positions - operations chief and fire marshal.
"Normally we would have 48 line positions and four Chief officers, however, eight positions have been frozen," Carlson said. "This includes the Fire Chief and Training Chief positions.
"Normally our daily minimum staffing is 13 per shift, which covers all four stations with three personnel and one battalion chief," Carlson said. "Ideally the daily minimum staffing in my opinion would be 16, which would allow for one additional company per day. I base my thoughts on response times and total needed personnel on scene to mitigate emergencies. We have never realized the 16 number and last year we were forced to reduce daily staffing from 13 to 12, which took one engine out of service and necessitated the implementation of the limited response vehicle."
The police department currently has 78 sworn staff members budgeted and 13 dispatchers budgeted, but not all those positions are filled or operational because some personnel is in training and others have been injured, said Interim Turlock Police Chief Miguel Pacheco.
“I just had an exit interview with an officer leaving to another agency," Pacheco said. "There are potentially three other officers leaving in the near future. This is on top of other officers leaving for retirement. If these all occurred, it would be over 60 years of law enforcement experience lost to this community.
"There are different thoughts of how many officers per thousand residents would be sufficient," Pacheco said. "That being said, not all communities are the same. For context, in 2011, our sworn staff was allocated at 86. The city population at that time was approximately 69,000. Our current population is closer to 74,000. In 2011, this gave us roughly 1.24 officers per 1,000 residents. Using today’s population, that number would get us to 92 officers. This would allow our department to have adequate staffing to cover not only basic patrol services, but it would also allow the agency to be proactive in many areas including drug, gang and violence suppression, expanded traffic safety and forming partnerships with other agencies to help find meaningful solutions to ongoing issues affecting our community such as drug use, transient-related violations and mental health occurrences. Our Dispatch Center staff has been cut from 16 dispatchers to 13. Getting back to 16 would be a good starting point but that number would have to grow in order to keep up with the staffing level and growing population of our city. This does not include our support personnel."
When not enough personnel is available to fill the staffing minimums, the departments have to use staff on overtime. Last year the fire department's overtime budget was cut from $500,000 to $100,000, which prompted the department to utilize the limited response vehicle.
"For the past six months federal CARES money has been used to keep all four stations staffed during the pandemic," Carlson said. "Once that money runs out, without any new allocations, we will be forced to close one of the four fire stations."
The police department was allocated $350,000 this year for overtime in field operations.
"Much of this overtime is used when we have critical incidents that occur which require staff to hold over after their shift in order to make the situation safe and maintain patrol operations," Pacheco said. "Additionally, this overtime is used to maintain minimum staffing levels on patrol. Many times, we are at minimums and if an officer calls in sick or is injured, then overtime is used to fill the required slot."
Finding lateral hires - referring to someone who has experience and doesn't need a long training period - has been difficult for Turlock's public safety agencies, primarily because of salary and benefit packages.
"The fire department does not have a hiring problem," Carlson said. "We can find entry level people with no experience that want to become firefighters. We do, however, have a severe retention problem. In the past three years alone 10 veteran firefighters have left the city for other fire jobs, while only two have retired from the city. This ratio should be reversed, as both the monetary cost and the loss of experience to the city is damaging. To continue to be a well-trained, aggressive department we must do a better job of retaining our firefighters."
Pacheco said the police department is not as fortunate as the fire department when it comes to finding people willing to take on the job.
"Finding people who want to do this job is becoming more difficult," Pacheco said. "Turlock has always had and will continue to have very high standards for our officers. In the current climate it is hard to find people willing to work in law enforcement who meet those standards."
Typically, when the departments lose people with years of experience, they are replaced by someone new to the field, which means a longer training time and a greater expense for the city.
For the fire department, the hiring process takes around three to four months, and then once hired a new recruit goes through a six-week academy. Once assigned to an engine, the new firefighter has to complete a 12-month probationary period.
For the police department, the required background and hiring process takes around 45 to 60 days.
"That being said, it would take about a year for a police officer trainee to get hired, pass backgrounds and medical examinations, pass the academy and complete our rigorous field training program," Pacheco said. "A year is if everything goes smoothly. In addition, this is after the agency spends time, money and effort in locating qualified candidates. This is why it is crucial to retain the staff we have as every departure sets the organization back."
The cost of hiring a new firefighter or officer can be around $8,000 with medical, psychological, and background testing. And from there the costs grow. For a newly hired firefighter, the department has to purchase personal protective equipment, which cost around $5,000 each. The training academy costs around $40,000 and hopefully multiple candidates are in the academy, so that the per person cost is around $8,000, Carlson said. Probationary training costs add about $5,000 per person, for a total of approximately $26,000 per recruit.
The police department also has to spend around $8,000 per new officer to complete the required medical testing, background investigation and academy. However, the real cost of replacing a veteran officer with a new hire is far higher, Pacheco said.
"Far more impactful, however, is the fact that if we consider that we must train this recruit in both the academy and field training environment, we are now paying salary and benefits to an officer who is not yet operational on their own for about a year," Pacheco said. "Once that perspective is considered, the City now invested well over $100,000 in hiring costs, field training costs, payroll, insurance and other associated costs. That is the fiscal aspect of the cost, the service side of the cost is that with every officer lost, we lose valuable experience in a field that is becoming more difficult every year. It pays to hold on to the valuable and committed staff that we have."
Both departments actively search out grants that can help fund staffing increases, but almost all of them, besides being very competitive and limited, require matching funds from the city.
The Turlock City Council recognized the impact of a budget shortfall to public safety and began looking for solutions in 2019. Ultimately, a community oversight committee advocated for putting a 3/4 cent sales tax measure on the November ballot - Measure A - the City of Turlock, 911 Safety/Emergency Medical Response, Community Services Measure.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, Measure A is estimated to provide $11 million in revenue annually to fund City of Turlock services by increasing the sales tax from 7.875% to 8.625%. Measure A includes accountability requirements, annual independent financial audits, citizen oversight, and public disclosure of spending. By law, all Measure A funds must remain in Turlock and cannot be taken by the county or state government.
The revenue generated through the sales tax could be used to fund a variety of purposes, from public safety to road improvements to other community needs.
Both the police and firefighter unions have actively been campaigning in support of Measure A's passage.
"The Measure includes a citizen oversight group which will report to the community how and where the Council is directing monies be spent," said Turlock Associated Police Officers President Det. Tim Redd. "Rest assured TAPO and Fire will be keeping a watchful eye as well. Unfortunately, the City of Turlock is way past correcting the issues of mismanagement in time to save our City from financial disaster without this measure. Once our head is above water, we can examine those areas of fiscal mismanagement and take appropriate actions with the hope of possibly repealing the sales tax in the future.
"People feel that employees paying more for their benefits is one of the ways the City can curtail its expenses," Redd said. "Several times during negotiations we were told ‘industry standard’ is the employees paying 20% of the premium. While TAPO agrees with this mind set, police officers and dispatchers are currently over 24% (total compensation) below the median of our comparison cities. Without increasing salaries and forcing employees to pay more for their benefits, we will fall even further behind severely hindering recruitment and retention."
The City of Turlock had two polls commissioned to gauge the public’s interest in a sales tax measure.
The first poll, conducted Feb. 3 through 9 — one month before the beginning of shelter in place health orders in response to the coronavirus — found that a majority of Turlock residents would support a 1 cent sales tax increase to help fund City services.
A second poll was completed in June and found that as many as 65 percent of likely November voters would support a sales tax measure.
In the February poll, those surveyed were more supportive of a 1 cent sales tax measure than they were of a ¾ cent or ½ cent sales tax measure, however, the City Council decided to go with the lower rate on the ballot in response to the pandemic and at the advice of the citizen committee.
"Nobody wants to pay more taxes, however, this increase doesn’t place the funding burden solely on Turlock’s citizens," Redd said. "Turlock commercially serves a population of 300,000 people, meaning people from surrounding communities will be shouldering some of the costs as well. In communities such as Modesto its citizens pay a utility-users tax which only affects the residents, thus allowing the transient population to enjoy City services for free. Measure A is designed to eliminate that."