Struggling to keep pace with crime on a shrinking budget, Oxnard police officials are urging adoption of a public-safety tax to bankroll an escalating war against lawbreakers in Ventura County's most crime-plagued city.
In a letter this month to the Oxnard City Council, Lt. Tom Cady requested that council members place a measure before voters to establish the tax to hire more police officers.
The revenues generated would also go to beef up Fire Department services.
"It does not appear there will be funds available to bring critically needed safety services to an acceptable level within the next several years," wrote Cady, president of Oxnard's Public Safety Management Assn. "We feel that by dedicating the revenue from this measure to increased safety services, it will receive the necessary public support."
Cady urged that officials place the measure before voters in a special election on March 2 to fill a vacancy on the City Council.
But city officials said the March ballot already has been set and, because of voting laws, cannot be changed. The soonest the council could place the measure on the ballot without calling another special election is 1994.
Cady could not be contacted and did not specify how many additional officers are needed or how much it would cost to hire them over the next few years.
But Police Chief Harold Hurtt recently unveiled a plan to hire another 33 department employees by the summer of 1996, at an additional cost of nearly $1 million a year.
This year's Police Department budget of $19 million already represents 30% of Oxnard's General Fund budget.
The city has 148 sworn officers, one for every 960 residents. Of the five Ventura County cities with their own police departments, only Port Hueneme has a poorer ratio--one officer for every 967 residents.
The Oxnard Police Department is the lowest-staffed in the nation for cities with a population of 100,000 to 250,000, Hurtt said in an interview.
"This Police Department has gone from a department that, while leanly staffed, was holding its own to a department that is severely understaffed and at a critical point," Hurtt said.
As council members have slashed the budgets of departments citywide, the police have suffered their share of cuts.
In fiscal year 1992-93, the department lost two motorcycle officer positions, two animal control officer positions and clerical help. In addition, the department froze positions for assistant chief, an officer, a cadet and a dispatcher.
In practical terms, the losses mean that an officer is more likely to respond to a potentially violent call without backup, Hurtt said.
It means that crime victims have to wait longer for police to arrive, and that for some low-level offenses an officer may not show up at all, he said. It means that an Oxnard resident is five times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than a resident of Camarillo, and 2 1/2 times more likely than a resident of Ventura.
Oxnard, the county's largest city and among its poorest, accounted for 43% of all crimes countywide over the past two years, including 83% of rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, Hurtt said.
"It really is a degradation of police services," Hurtt said. "I support the aspect of a balanced approach to cutting the budget but when you come down to emergency services, when you come down to people feeling safe and secure in their homes and on the streets, people would rather have policemen than park workers."
But some city officials remain unconvinced that voters would approve a public-safety tax.
Because it is a special tax, state law requires that the measure gain support from two-thirds of Oxnard voters. Two years ago, voters soundly defeated a proposed 5% utility tax despite warnings that it would mean drastic budget cuts and layoffs.
Police officers and firefighters at that time went door-to-door to urge passage of the measure.
"I expect the likelihood of success of a similar measure would not be all that great," said Mayor Manuel Lopez, a strong supporter of the measure two years ago. "I would support it; I think we need more policemen. But what I think is not as important as what the people think."
In some cities in the county, there apparently is wide public support for large-scale funding of police services.
Simi Valley spends $11.5 million, 46% of its General Fund budget, on police. And in Moorpark, which contracts with the Sheriff's Department for police protection, city officials spend $2.1 million, 58% of the budget, on law enforcement.
In 1991, Moorpark reported the fewest crimes per capita among Ventura County cities. And Simi Valley remains one of the nation's safest cities with populations of at least 100,000.
Less money and fewer officers, however, doesn't necessarily translate to more crime.
Thousand Oaks--which spends only 25% of its $34.5-million budget on its Sheriff's Department contract and has one sworn officer for every 1,200 residents--is also one of the country's safest cities with populations over 100,000.
But in Port Hueneme, where the number of officers will shrink from 21 to 19 early next year, Chief Robert Anderson said that budget cuts have strained resources to the limit.
Crime is up 45% in the last two years, led by a jump in property offenses. And although the city still spends 30% of its General Fund budget on police services, Anderson said funding has been steadily eroding for several years.
"We're looking at all kinds of possibilities to save dollars," Anderson said. "We just are not going to do things like we did before."
In nearby Oxnard, Hurtt agreed that the days when police budgets could be shielded from citywide cuts are over. And while he has put together a wish list to expand the police force over the next three years, he's not sure how much money city leaders will be able to scrape together to strengthen law enforcement.
Without more city funds available, Hurtt said, residents need to decide whether to support a tax hike to put more officers on the street.
"I think this is where residents set the priorities for the city," Hurtt said. "If they see public safety as one of the top issues, then they will support whatever measures are necessary to fund that. If they don't, hopefully they will understand the consequences.
"From my standpoint, I don't see where we can take any more cuts without seriously jeopardizing the safety of the citizens of Oxnard."
Oxnard and Port Hueneme have fewer officers per capita than other Ventura County cities that operate their own police departments. *
General % of Officers fund Police total Sworn per City budget budget budget officers resident (In millions of dollars) Ventura $50.0 $15.0 30% 122 1 per 758 Simi Valley $25.0 $11.5 46% 111 1 per 903 Santa Paula $9.5 $2.6 27% 27 1 per 928 Oxnard $63.0 $19.0 30% 148 1 per 960 Port Hueneme $7.2 $2.2 30% 21 1 per 967
* Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai and Thousand Oaks contract with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
Source: City records.