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Officers rail against cuts to Ceres PD
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Members of the Ceres Police force and some relatives wore T-shirts in protest of further Police Department budget cuts during Mondays Ceres City Council meeting. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Ceres police officers stood lined up at the back of City Council Chambers Monday evening in a show of solidarity against any possible action to further reduce the force as councilmembers wrestled with growing budget problems.

The City Council voted 4-1 to start out the 2016-17 fiscal year on July 1 without a final budget to allow the city time to see how much unspent money remains from the current budget cycle. Mayor Chris Vierra, Vice Mayor Mike Kline and councilmembers Linda Ryno and Ken Lane supported a Continuing Resolution while Councilman Bret Durossette voted no. The move effectively borrows the 2015-16 budget and prorates it for three months until a final spending plan is crafted this fall.

Speaking on behalf of the Ceres police officers - with its members wearing T-shirts reading "I Stand Behind the Ceres Police Officers Association - Sgt. Danny Vierra suggested that the council refrain from additional cuts to his department. Sgt. Vierra said the council's prior decision to freeze five vacant police officer positions was tantamount to layoffs. They join four frozen positions in prior budget years.

"I find it interesting how a couple of you councilmembers talk about no layoffs. Effectively with this budget what you've done is lay off nine police officer positions," said Vierra. "You can word it however you want to say it, freezes, but effectively you eliminated five positions from our PD. There's a certain quality of service we have to provide to the community and with those layoffs we're going to be able to do it."

Sgt. Vierra said the cuts betray the intent of Measure H, a special half-cent sales tax measure passed by Ceres voters in 2007, to continue public safety service levels.

"I don't understand how PD can take any more cuts if you want to provide services to the community."

Ceres Police Department is allotted 55 sworn officers and is now staffed with 46.

The mayor agreed that the city needs "more bodies and services but how do we get there when you've got a dollar coming in and those services cost a dollar 50?" Sgt. Vierra said he understands the council's dilemma but charged members are "balancing this budget on the backs of the Police Department."

Since the May 23 council meeting, City Manager Toby Wells was able additional savings in the proposed budget to reduce a $658,000 deficit. He said a $100,000 savings was realized in adjustments from unused gas and oil savings relating to the city's vehicle fleet. Wells also found $180,000 to shift relating to fleet budget allocations. As a result he said the city will likely end the 2015-16 fiscal budget with a 19 to 20 percent reserve.

The city may be asked to make up the budget gap with part of the reserve, drawing it down no lower than 18 percent, the council determined.

Impacting the city's budget is last year's decision to return to city employees the salary concessions which were forfeited to help the city balance past budgets during the economic downturn. The budget is also adversely impacted by a $600,000 increase in employee retirement costs.

To avert a worse budget crisis next year, Wells said a five percent change is needed, or a $1 million change in either expenses or revenues "or some combination thereof." The situation will be worse for the 2017-18 fiscal year, Wells opined, because revenues are only expected to increase four percent and employee costs increasing six percent.

Members made it clear on Monday that the city will need to make some hard financial decisions to avert a further continual drawdown on reserves.

Mayor Chris Vierra likened the city to a train headed the wrong direction on the tracks.

"Maybe we have to provide services in a different way," he said, noting the city may have to tell department heads what their budget will be and expect them to live within it.

"We're spending more money than we're bringing in."

Ryno sounded the alarm for budget cuts, saying that failing to make changes will cause the city's projected 19.4 percent reserve will drop to 16.7 percent next year, 12 percent the following year and 7.7 percent the next.

"It's time to make the tough decisions," agreed Lane, who challenged the city's labor groups to help the city come up with solutions.

Personnel cuts may be inevitable since 87 percent of the general fund is spent on salaries, said Wells.

The mayor blamed the current budget problems on the failure of Ceres retail sales tax base to "keep up with our population basis" and the city not having the initial vision to plan for greater commercial areas. He said the city's renewed quest to develop Ceres in a commercial fashion has faltered a bit, noting how the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center has been delayed by "one fraction of people" standing in the way of $500,000 to $1 million in new tax revenue.

Also during the meeting the City Council decided to seek a federal COPS hiring grant to fund two officers for three years. If successful, the grant will pay 75 percent of salaries and agreed to keep the officers on for 12 months after grant funding runs out. The grant would mean the city is obligating $54,000 to the budget.