Are there enough police officers covering Ceres?
It depends on who you talk to.
Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith said that given the funds available, things are okay with his department, despite one resident's charge at last week's Ceres City Council meeting that officers are too thin.
Jamao Walker, who annually shows his appreciation for the Ceres Police Department with a July barbecue, told the council that he doesn't see the police presence that he has been in the past. Walker complained that the city did away with its Street Crimes Unit years ago.
"I don't see officers out on the streets," said Walker. "Some of the officers I spoke to tell me you have four officers per shift. You've got 50,000-plus people in this city. You've only got four officers running around? That's ridiculous. So, I was wondering what was going on. We need more officers."
"I don't have the opinion that we don't have enough police officers in town," said Chief Smith. "Our patrol, we have enough people out on the street."
That's not to say he wouldn't like to staff special enforcements "of all kinds" but he noted "we don't have the money to do that right now ... not at least for a couple of years."
Six vacant officer positions have been frozen due to a lack of funds since Smith has been chief. The number of sworn officers has dropped in the past seven years from 52 to 46, he said. The chief said his department was impacted recently from having approximately five officers out on injuries in the past several months.
Budget problems have caused Ceres to pull officers assigned to the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Unit, Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force and the FBI Gang Task Force.
"I've brought everybody back to Ceres especially during this time when the economy is bad and we didn't have the money."
While some lament the loss of the Street Crimes Unit several years ago, Chief Smith said it bit into patrol positions.
"For me, patrol is the most important thing of the police department. It's the backbone. I focus on keeping patrol filled all the time."
Smith explained that to make the funds stretch, the department went from five shifts to three 11-hour shifts for its patrol staff. Ceres uses a 4-4-4 schedule, or four officers on day shift, four on swing shift and four on graveyard shift. The minimum staffing level is 3-3-3.
"If I have people that are injured on duty or just out, we go down to the minimums that day," said Chief Smith. "We won't fill it with overtime unless it goes below the three minimums. There are days when we're at minimums but we do that in some ways to save overtime. In the past we were spending entirely too much on overtime."
Overtime costs were running about $750,000 before Smith became chief. That number has dropped to approximately $400,000.
On June 12 the City Council approved a General Fund budget for fiscal year 2017-18 of $19.1 million while managing to stave off firefighter layoffs. The spending plan was balanced by not filling a number of vacant city positions and borrowing an additional $505,688 from reserves. The budget plan leaves the city with an 18 percent reserve as the city entered the new budget cycle on July 1.
The new budget projects revenues into the General Fund of $19.3 million with expenditures at $19.81 million. Police operations take up $12.05 million of the General Fund and the Fire Department claims $6.98 million. Overall, public safety consumes 82 percent of the General Fund budget. Seventy-three percent of the general fund is spent on employee salaries and benefits.
Smith said he has traded the department's crime analyst - she left the city for another job - for a new detective position.
Smith noted that Sgt. Joe Wren, who headed up the code enforcement effort, spent a lot of time on Darrah Street and did a good job before he left. If Walker is seeing fewer officers, Smith suggested it's because there are less problems on Darrah and attention is being spent on other areas.
A residual problem on Darrah is illegal dumping. To combat illegal dumping of large bulky items like refrigerators and broken-down couches and love seats, Wren initially had set up a drop-off area and had the local garbage contractor pick up the trash. The program was abandoned when Wren left but people continue to leave items at the site, said Walker. Smith said the city continues to arrange for trash dumped illegally to be picked up and discarded. That has created its own problem.
"All we're doing is enabling people to dump their garbage out in the street and they know we're going to come pick it up all the time," said Chief Smith. "We didn't see that part of it. We just figured we're going to clean this city up because there's garbage everywhere. So we start picking it up and they just start piling it up for free. We've really kind of caused our own issue there."
Illegal dumping is also occurring in other problem areas like the Standford Avenue area. Residents in an apartment complex have been notified on the proper disposal of unwanted items, Smith said.
The budget includes the freezing of four positions: an administrative clerk, a custodian, a fire captain and one fire engineer.
It also eliminates a Public Safety Support Services supervisor and creates a Public Safety dispatch supervisor. It also re-establishes the Senior Planner job description.
Continue to be frozen from prior years are:
• A vacant Public Works Superintendent;
• One vacant Senior Parks Maintenance Worker;
• One vacant Parks Maintenance Worker I/II;
• One vacant Parks Maintenance Worker Aide;
• Six vacant police officer positions;
• One vacant Fire Battalion Chief position;
• One vacant Deputy Finance director;
• One Recreation Supervisor;
• Redevelopment and Economic Development Manager;
• One Police Sergeant (converted to a lieutenant position);
• One Hi-Tech Crime investigator;
• Non-critical positions as determined by the city manager.
The city is expected to lose the six firefighters whose salaries were funded by the two-year SAFER grant which runs out in March.
Ceres has suffered budgetarily because sales tax revenues have not kept up with increased personnel costs. The budget picture has been impacted by increases in retirement costs, workers compensation insurance and health insurance premiums.
"We're trying to make it through this time and I think things are obviously looking better in Ceres. We've got several things going on that's going to help us."
Smith said sales tax should increase with the development of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and Blaker Brewery and renovation of the Save Mart Shopping Center.
The city is also counting on using half of an anticipated $600,000 in fees from Kase Manufacturing, a medical marijuana facility that is expected to be operational this fall. The city anticipates a windfall of $600,000 in fees for the first year of Kase's operation. At a budget workshop held last month, three members pressed to include half of those anticipated revenues into the city's spending plan.