Daytime patrols, helicopter hours on chopping block

Huntington Beach is looking to eliminate a number of positions across the board, including downtown's daytime foot patrol officers, to close a $3-million budget gap.

The fire, police, public works and community services department heads presented their departments' shares of the proposed $3 million in cuts for the 2010-11 fiscal year at a City Council study session on Monday.

The city has made about $20 million in cuts over 24 months and implemented a retirement-incentive program that is projected to save the city about $11 million over the next six years.

But the city still has to trim its budget.

The preliminary cuts call for across-the-board reductions, including reorganizing department structures to deal with eliminated positions, reducing lifeguard hours and contracting out services.

The proposal also calls for a reduction in storytimes at the library, axing seven crossing-guard locations and closing the Police Department's Oak View substation, which staff presented at the Aug. 2 study session.

The city has two study sessions left before it must approve the budget before the Oct. 1 deadline — the beginning of the next fiscal year.

The Police Department is looking to cut about 20 positions next year, including eliminating four of the 12 downtown foot-patrol positions.

The four positions are the daytime patrollers, who move around the congested downtown responding to calls and dealing with various issues, Police Chief Ken Small said.

"They are a valuable resource," he said.

The department has two officers assigned to the day shift, while the other two positions are unfilled, Small said. The cut will not affect the nighttime patrol.

Although the cut hasn't been approved yet, Councilman Joe Carchio said he has already started receiving complaints from downtown businesses upset over the proposed reduction in officers.

"The businessmen downtown are not going to be very happy with doing away with [the officers]," he said.

The department is also looking at decreasing its canine unit by half, transferring two of six helicopter pilots out of the program and reducing the helicopters' annual air time from about 3,000 to 2,000.

The reduction also calls for the elimination of two pilots at a savings of about $50,000, Small said.

Reducing flight hours will also allow the department to increase the lifespan of the helicopter, which was expected to have to be replaced in 2013 at a cost of $2.5-million, and save an estimated $216,000 annually in operating costs.

"Those are big-ticket items that allow us to make our budget goals without laying off people," Small said.

Several council members raised objections to transferring the two pilots out of the program.

Councilman Gil Coerper said he knows from personal experience that the helicopter has "been very, very successful in catching people, bad people if you will, when they could have gotten away."

Huntington Beach Police Officer's Assn. President Kreg Muller warned the council that the cuts would make the city less safe.

"We are seeing an increase in crime," he said. "We cannot afford to get behind."

When asked by Carchio if the city would still be safe, Small said the department would still maintain its quick response times.

"Again, we're making decisions in terms of budget realities, not what we want to do," Small told council.

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