Ignoring last week's hard-fought decision to freeze the Police Department budget at $139 million, the San Diego City Council on Thursday reversed course and agreed to increase the department's operating budget to $145.4 million. Council members also agreed to seek $2 million in the upcoming budget to operate a new jail and even more to buy land that would house a new police station.
Thursday's surprising 7-1 vote ran counter to the partial "conceptual freeze" that the council endorsed last week when it embraced the bulk of Mayor Maureen O'Connor's $449-million "freeze budget."
The Police Department was one of several departments that were included in the partial "conceptual freeze" that O'Connor introduced, and the council partially embraced. That budget proposal froze spending in the arts, parks and recreation, community service programs, and safety services departments at current levels. It attempted to balance the out-of-kilter budget by seeking budget cuts in other departments and tapping new revenue sources.
Thursday's vote to increase police spending further complicated the already difficult task of preparing a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Before the proposed police budget increase, O'Connor's "freeze" budget included a revenue shortfall that the mayor set at $13 million and that critics pegged much higher.
"The mayor's budget was already $30 million or so out of whack with revenues," said Councilman Ron Roberts, who introduced the fatter Police Department budget motion that won support from everyone except O'Connor, who opposed the increase, and Councilman John Hartley, who was absent.
After the meeting, O'Connor, who remains steadfast against raising taxes without a popular vote, described the council's decision to beef up the police budget without first identifying a corresponding revenue source as "upsetting. . . . I think it's a mistake."
O'Connor agreed that public safety is the city' first priority, but that the Police Department budget has increased by 79% during recent years, often at the expense of other important departments. O'Connor said the Police Department was her first choice for more funding if any new sources of revenue are found.
But, after Thursday's meeting, Roberts maintained that police and fire services "have to be our No. 1 commitment . . . and we made commitments on all sorts of other things" during last week's agreement to partially freeze budgets in the arts and recreation.
During debate Thursday, Councilman Wes Pratt once again urged council members to tackle the politically tough task of raising taxes that are needed to keep municipal services at levels required to maintain the city's oft-mentioned quality of life. "We cannot ignore the question any longer," Pratt said. "The buck stops here."
Police Chief Robert Burgreen told the council that San Diegans will soon see longer response times, even with the $145.4-million Police Department budget. Burgreen linked that service deterioration to the fact that requests for service are growing three times as fast as the general population growth.
But Burgreen described the falloff in service as minimal compared to service cuts that would be forced if the council adopts O'Connor's proposed budget freeze.
"We were proposing the cutting of 80 sworn police officers" under the mayor's proposed budget, Burgreen said. That cutback would not have affected the number of patrolmen and detectives on San Diego's 1,821-member force, Burgreen said.
However, the department would have cut back its staff and stopped investigating traffic accidents that did not involve injuries or hit-and-run incidents. The Police Department would also have cut many "pro-active" programs designed to keep people from entering the justice system, Burgreen said.