Cutting Vancouver's safety net?

City’s budget woes mean police, firefighters must be axed, officials say

The Columbian - Local News
by ,

Vancouver's budget crisis has reached the point that city officials and politicians are using words like “least worst,” or “a mess” to describe finances, and talk about finding solutions that are “the most palatable.”

And no matter how they stack it, “most palatable” is a bitter pill to swallow.

A preliminary budget released last week shows Vancouver will eliminate 105 jobs by Dec. 31. Job cuts that include, for the first time in memory, uniformed cops and firefighters. At least 11 police and 18 firefighter jobs are among those set to go. Fire Station 6 will close.

It’s not that police and fire have a lot to give — both have staffing levels well below state and federal standards.

But, many city leaders say, they’ve got what’s left to give. It’s not a matter of leaving city parks unmowed. That’s already happening.

The police and fire departments make up $53.2 million of the $129.7 million general fund — and the city is tasked with taking $10.5 million from its next biennial budget.

On the city council’s orders, Vancouver has made $35.7 million in budget cuts since 2001 without laying off public safety employees.

But those orders have changed.

“Where we are now, choosing to (not cut public safety) now would have such a tremendous impact on the balance of services,” Assistant City Manager Eric Holmes said. “It would significantly trend us toward becoming a single-purpose entity.”

So it’s come to this: Close the Marshall and Firstenburg community centers, or save police jobs and Fire Station 6? Keep public safety unscathed, or cut road maintenance by more than half? Lay off 105 from all departments, or retain cops and firefighters and let go of up to 60 more?

Public safety or bust?

Those were the policy questions the city council grappled with this spring.

After several daylong retreats, six of the seven council members decided residents would rather see a budget that cut from every department.

“Where do you come up with $10 million in cuts?” Mayor Tim Leavitt asked last week. “I don’t think our citizens want us to shut down community centers. I don’t think they want us to close parks. I don’t think they want us to stop filling potholes.”

Councilor Bart Hansen said that’s exactly what citizens want.

“I’m willing to stand alone on this and will continue to do so,” Hansen said. “The No. 1 thing is public safety: You expect a policeman at your house when you don’t feel safe. You expect a firefighter when your house is burning.”

Decisions about the cuts were based on responses from 2,000 people about what city services were the most important to them. Cuts were then distributed over those priorities.

Public safety took top marks, along with clean drinking water. Street preservation and lighting also were high on the list.

The proportion of layoffs in public safety — which makes up 56 percent of the city’s 1,100 person work force — is smaller than in other departments, Holmes said. But police and fire budgets are also the city’s largest, so they are making a bigger monetary sacrifice — $2.2 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

Hansen’s dismay over those losses was joined by the police and fire unions.

“I agree, without more revenue, then the choice would be between keeping the fire station open and keeping Firstenburg open,” firefighters union President Mark Johnston said. “And you’re not going to care if you can go work out if you’re having a heart attack.”

Councilor Jack Burkman said he felt Monday’s budget proposal was in line with what residents want and is a “middle ground.”

“The message that I heard … is we don’t want a public safety community and everything else thrown off the table,” he said.

Burkman said his concern is that people still think there’s extra budget line items to cut.

“When you look at those level of cuts, surely we’ve cut out a lot of the fat,” he said.

Two or three?

Police guild President Ryan Martin said he wasn’t surprised that as many as 22 officers (or about 11 if a federal grant is approved) could be gone from the Vancouver Police Department.

“You get more bang for your buck if you start cutting cops and firemen,” he said. “We’re the higher-paying, higher-benefited positions within municipal government pretty much.”

He called the layoff announcement an “incentive to instill public outcry,” and noted that after Phoenix said it would cut hundreds of cops and firemen, the city council passed a 2 percent food sales tax to keep them whole.

It’s long been council policy not to cut public safety, Vancouver budget and planning manager Natasha Ramras said. And at this time, keeping that policy “would be too drastic” to the city’s other essential functions.

She said that as a rule of thumb, public safety jobs — with salaries, benefits and training factored in — cost one-third to a half more than other jobs. That figure could be even higher if an employee who makes money for the city, such as those in recreation or fee collection, are gone.

And there aren’t many of those other jobs left. To address the budget gap through staff reductions without hitting jobs associated with having a “safe and prepared community,” (a category that includes public safety, and also code enforcement and prosecuting attorneys) 130 full-time positions would have to go. That represents an average 41 percent reduction across the board in the other departments, the budget department said.

“I could not in good conscience recommend this approach,” City Manager Pat McDonnell wrote in an e-mail to the city council on Thursday. “It would leave the city in an unstable and unsustainable operational and financial situation that would result in significant exposure to risks, both legal and financial.”

But Johnston, of the firefighters union, said that there’s a big risk to not having an adequate complement of first responders.

“The greatest obligation of a city is to provide emergency services,” he said. “I don’t want bodies piling up in Vancouver because of this.”

VANCOUVER’S BUDGET CRISIS

Here’s a look at what’s contributing to the problem:

Revenue

  • It’s no coincidence that Initiative 747, which limits property tax increases to the lower number between 1 percent or the inflation rate, passed the same year that the city’s structural deficit began. That’s been a ding of about $3.1 million a year, the city’s budget office says.
  • In Vancouver, sales tax, the other mainstay of the government budgets, isn’t strong compared with other cities in Washington that aren’t within a 10-minute drive of a state with no sales tax. When the recession hit, the city lost about $5.1 million between 2007 and 2009, while the city estimates about $10 million is lost due to purchases in Oregon.
  • Vancouver also phased out its business and occupation tax starting in the early 1990s, ending with its complete disappearance in 2002. In 2011, that tax could bring as much as $9.9 million if it were brought back at its rate prior to being eliminated.
  • The state’s rollback of car licensing fees (prompted by Initiative 695) also gave a hit to the city, cutting what would have been about $4.8 million of income in 2011.
  • Also upcoming is the potential passage of an initiative to bring liquor sales out from under state control. Vancouver would lose $1 million of its share. Also, the city’s forecasts are based on a 2 percent inflation rate until 2016; if inflation climbs more quickly in an economic recovery, shortfalls could be much higher than city estimates.

Expenses

  • The biggest cost in a city are salaries and benefits. Vancouver employee salaries have crept up for the most part, but benefit costs have skyrocketed — while health insurance costs have been rising by double digits over the past decade and are projected to continue to do so through 2016.
  • Benefits alone now represent $15.7 million in spending; in 2011, with no changes, the bill will be $17.9 million. The growth rate of salaries and benefits is expected to go up between 4.5 percent to 6.9 percent over the next five years, without adding any employees.
  • The city’s required contribution to the public employee retirement system, which is required by the state, is also expected to nearly double between 2010 and 2012. That cost will go from $1.6 million in 2009 to $2.4 million in 2012.

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