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Colton weighs the merits of trimming police salaries

Frontier lawman Virgil Earp tamed this wild railroad town more than a century ago, but talk to Colton residents today and they’ll tell you this San Bernardino County community is once again in desperate need of cleaning up.

This time the trouble isn’t rowdy desperados blasting streetlamps, it’s a history of corruption and the same recessionary pressures that have ravaged many other Inland Empire towns.

Two former mayors and three former City Council members have been indicted over the last decade. The Stater Bros. grocery chain vacated its Colton corporate headquarters two years ago and moved to San Bernardino; and just last year, the city’s former finance director made a $700,000 bookkeeping error — in the red

But those aren’t the only misfortunes that have settled on this blue-collar city of roughly 50,000.

After laying off nearly a hundred city workers, Colton still faces a $5-million budget shortfall. In an effort to balance their modest $30-million budget, city officials are considering auctioning off the town’s gas-fired power plant or issuing pink slips to a third of the police force. The city has also discussed padlocking its police station and firehouses and contracting with San Bernardino County for emergency services.

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The problem is compounded by declining tax revenues. The “Miracle Mile” stretch of RV dealerships off Interstate 215 — a long-time golden goose of sales tax receipts — has seen dealerships close as sales plummet. Also, a lucrative yet enormously unpopular utility tax tacked onto power, telephone water and cable television bills is set to expire in June.

In the face of such austerity, some residents fear for the city’s future.

“Colton has had its troubles, that’s for sure, and the money situation doesn’t look so good now,” said Arlan White, owner of Patriot Towing on the south side of town. “But I don’t see how getting rid of cops on the street is going to make anything better.”

On a recent Tuesday night, White huddled with two dozen like-minded residents at the local pipefitters union hall and strategized on how to save the Police Department; a number of them credited officers with guiding them out of troubled teenage years.

“I don’t want no sheriff here. He doesn’t know my city. He doesn’t know the parolees. He doesn’t know the dope houses. He doesn’t know the kids who depend on the [police activities league] officers,” Colton resident Darrell Fisher said at a recent council meeting.

Fisher said that, years ago, he was a teenager sleeping on the streets and using drugs, and that it was a Colton police officer who helped him turn his life around.

A Colton constabulary has existed since the city was founded in 1887, with Virgil Earp becoming the town’s first marshal after his famous stand with brother Wyatt at the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.

Today however, Colton residents are more likely to witness bare-knuckle political brawls than gunfights.

During the last election, the city’s police union not only backed the losing candidate but also campaigned actively against the ultimate winner, David Zamora.

Just recently, when the council started discussing police layoffs, the police union highlighted the salary and benefit package of Rod Foster, Colton’s city manager, who took the job a year ago. Foster pockets $220,000 a year, less than his counterparts in the neighboring cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, towns more than four times the size of Colton, but a few thousand dollars more than what Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa collects.

Zamora and Foster insist, publically, that there’s no bad blood and that their primary focus is maintaining public safety while putting the city’s finances in order.

Zamora, during his first council meeting as mayor, was quick to cut off public comment — angering residents who had come to voice support for the Police Department. At meetings since, however, the mayor has allowed all interested residents to address the council.

“When you set aside emotion and focus on the issue, that is what will allow us to deal with the issue,” Foster said. “It’s a math problem.”

Some council members want to put the unpopular utility users tax — which brings in $4.9 million a year at an average household cost of $40 a month — on the June ballot and let voters make the call. But given the town’s 15% unemployment rate and the fact that Zamora campaigned heavily against the utility tax, the odds don’t look good.

Greg Castillo, president of the Colton Police Officers Assn., said the city’s 58 officers have already agreed to make $1 million in concessions. It’s clear, he says, that the city wants more.

“If we don’t take more concessions, they’ve made it clear they’ll contract out to the Sheriff’s Department,” said Castillo, adding that negotiations with the city are continuing.

Nickelodeon Pizza owner Gary Grossich, who helped found the Citizens for Colton First political action committee, said Colton’s woes stem from years of overspending, mismanagement and scandal.

It’s the scandal part that’s gotten most of the headlines. In 2008, former Councilman Ramon Hernandez was convicted of using $5,500 in city money for calls to sex chat lines and for hotel stays. The councilman he was elected to replace, Donald Sanders, had been convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery three years before. Three others — former mayors Karl Gaytan and Abe Beltran and former Councilman James Grimsby — also were convicted on bribery charges.

“I could tell you 20 different things that would warrant a grand jury investigation,” Grossich said.

To bring in more money, Colton’s public utility recently raised rates by 17%, placing it among the highest of any municipal utility in Southern California. Residents also pay higher rates than those people who live just outside the city limits and are served by Southern California Edison.

“It’s crippled the entire city. Businesses are leaving in droves,” said Grossich. “What are you going to do, tell people to come to Colton and pay 40% more for utilities?”

General contractor Don Earp, a distant relation of Wyatt and Virgil, isn’t too happy about all the troubles his hometown of three decades seems to bring upon itself. He’s adamantly opposed to seeing any police officers or firefighters laid off, but, like a lot of residents, he’s tired of being nickeled-and-dimed by the city.

“I wish I knew the answer,” he said.

phil.willon@latimes.com


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