Making Public Pay for Budget Cuts

JULY 25, 2011


Last year, one of my reporters and her adult son were walking in downtown Sacramento when a couple of young toughs tried grabbing her purse. She pulled back her purse, and the robbers lunged at the two of them, leaving the son’s face covered in blood. Despite a frantic call to 911, the Sacramento police never showed up, nor did they respond to her repeated attempts to file a police report. Mom and son were OK, but a violent attack midday in downtown Sacramento apparently is not a serious-enough crime to warrant any police response.

Apparently, this incident is not unusual. “Armstrong & Getty,” a talk-radio show in Northern California, recently featured a morning drive-time discussion during which listeners shared similar stories of police indifference.

Police officials are blaming budget cuts for their cutbacks in service, but it’s hard to accept this explanation. The other day I saw an officer giving tickets to three teen-agers who were caught riding their bicycles without helmets. One downtown Sacramento officer rides around on a horse and gallops after people who jaywalk. There’s clearly the manpower to hand out tickets (but not to clean up the piles of manure the horses leave behind). It’s a question of priorities.

A recent Modesto Bee report points to this trend: “The California Highway Patrol is handing out more traffic citations than it did a few years ago, and that has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for state and local governments.” Another relevant statistic:

The average CHP officer who has retired in the past couple of years is bringing home a guaranteed pension of $98,000 a year (after 25 years of work), with automatic cost-of-living increases.

More Tickets

Police departments aren’t available to provide the services that the public depends upon, but they do have the manpower to increase their revenue-generating ticket operations. They are spending incredible amounts on salaries and benefits. And public safety budgets are consuming the lion’s share of city budgets.

In crime-plagued Stockton, where, because of budget cuts, police will respond only to violent crimes or crimes in progress, 80 percent of the city’s entire budget goes to “public safety,” according to the city manager. If cities spend more on police and fire services, that will leave less than a pittance for everything else.

Police officials acknowledge they are cutting back on services. For instance, in 2010, in the face of budget cuts in the notoriously crime-ridden city of Oakland, the police chief “listed exactly 44 situations that his officers will no longer respond to, and they include grand theft, burglary, car wrecks, identity theft and vandalism,” according to an NBC report. According to a USA Today report last year, “Budget cuts are forcing police around the country to stop responding to fraud, burglary and theft calls.” As budgets have tightened up, the problem is only getting worse.

I previously wrote about Alameda city firefighters who refused to save a suicidal man drowning in San Francisco Bay, then blamed the inaction on budget cuts that deprived firefighters of training for cold-water conditions. This sparked widespread outrage in Northern California, especially after the fire chief told a TV news show that he would not even save a drowning child because of the budget-caused restrictions.

Also, don’t expect better service if you have a civil lawsuit pending before any of the state’s court systems. “San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein announced drastic cuts … to the city’s civil court system in response to funding slashes in the current state budget,” according to the Pleasanton Weekly. “‘We will prioritize criminal, juvenile and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits.

“‘Beyond that, justice will be neither swift nor accessible,’ said Feinstein.”

This is a hissy fit. First, officials look everywhere they can to drum up new revenue. Notice all the new “fees” added to traffic tickets.

Sacramento charged drivers or their insurance companies fees of $495 to $2,275 when drivers were involved in a collision that requires a firefighter response, then repealed it in the face of public outrage.

Shutting Down

When officials can’t find enough pennies under the sofa cushions, they engage in what is known as “Washington Monument Syndrome.” When the multitrillion-dollar federal government “closes,” the first thing the officials do is close down the low-cost attractions in the hopes that tourists run home, clamoring for higher taxes. When we see tough times in local budgets, angry officials try to inflict as much pain as possible on the public by denying us services. At every step, they try to scare us into giving them more money. But they also work to assure that we cannot take care of ourselves.

We’re supposed to wait patiently for a police response that might never come. A 1982 state Supreme Court decision (Davidson v. City of Westminster) reminds us the police do not have to help us.

But don’t take matters into your own hands! California’s Draconian gun laws, for instance, put severe limits on our ability to protect ourselves. The public-sector unions also have assured that cities cannot contract out police and fire services to private bidders, where competitive pressures might improve customer service and efficiency.

Governments could improve the bang for the taxpayer’s buck if they reformed pensions, cut back on work rules, brought salaries in line with the marketplace and reduced the special protections that make it nearly impossible to discipline or remove ill-performing employees. Don’t hold your breath.

In the private sector, companies would minimize the pain on customers, who can take their business elsewhere. In the public sector, agencies spend money like crazy, and when they run out, they withhold services.

This is why government is supposed to be limited to the few tasks that cannot be provided in the marketplace.

We need to reject the scare tactics and insist on real, competitive reform. Otherwise, we might be the ones left waiting for the squad car that never comes.



Write a comment
  1. AlamedaVole
    AlamedaVole 25 July, 2011, 09:45

    Mr. Greenhut, your article raises important questions/discussion points, but the inaccuracy in your presentation of the Alameda situation calls into question your use of facts to back up predetermined positions.

    Just for the record: It wasn’t the Fire Chief who was quoted and it wasn’t budget cuts that were cited, it was a city policy that explicitly prohibited public safety officers from entering the water

    Reply this comment
  2. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog 25 July, 2011, 09:53

    It was Division Chief Ricci Zombeck who made those comments and the stated reason for the policy was budget cuts that ended the training for cold-water rescues.

    Reply this comment
  3. David from Oceanside
    David from Oceanside 26 July, 2011, 08:55

    “The public-sector unions also have assured that cities cannot contract out police and fire services to private bidders, where competitive pressures might improve customer service and efficiency.”

    Steve, can you confirm? If an unincorporated county are,a with no prior labor agreements forms a city, current law precludes a private firm contracting fire or other services? Municipal water is another ripe area for privatization. Park services, building and safety, the list is long.

    If so, this is very sad news. Reason TV has a great piece on a Georgia town which has contracted out everything but police. The police however do not have pensions, they have 401K type retirement. The city is entirely set up on pay as you go with the large majority of services contracted out to the private sector.

    Reply this comment
  4. CityTaxpayer
    CityTaxpayer 29 July, 2011, 17:17

    AlamedaVole – what’s your point? Who cares who said what? The fact is these guys stood around for over an hour and watched a guy die, when all they had to do was wade into the water and pull him out. They’re supposed to be heroes, not a bunch of rule-spewing wimps. As far as I’m concerned, the public bystanders were nearly as culpable as the firefighters. Why didn’t anyone wade into the water and help this man? Couldn’t three or four civilians have gone in there and done a team rescue? Hell, they could have gotten a rope and thrown it around him and dragged him in, if they were afraid he may have had a sharp weapon. The idea that trained firefighters whose job is to take risks to protect the public couldn’t go in and save this guy is disgusting. In a properly run organization, they would all be fired for negligence.

    Reply this comment
  5. Ms. White
    Ms. White 31 July, 2011, 09:14

    The time is fast coming when the controlling power of the labor unions will be very oppressive. Again and again the Lord has instructed that our people are to take their families away from the cities, into the country, where they can raise their own provisions;for in the future the problem of buying and selling will be a very serious one. We should now begin to heed the instruction given us over and over again: Get out of the cities into rural districts, where the houses are not crowded closely together, and where you will be free from the interference of enemies.–Letter 5, 1904.

    The trades unions will be one of the agencies that will bring upon this earth a time of trouble such as has not been since the world began.–Letter 200, 1903.

    Reply this comment
  6. Greg.c
    Greg.c 13 May, 2012, 22:51

    hi every one !
    Im a cab driver in sacramento downtown and i have a story to share about our law enforcement agents.
    i used to work at a convenience store before i start working as a cab driver, what i noticed as a clerk i used to see police officers comes in with 4 to 5 cop cars and stay in enjoying “free snacks” authorized by the owner to all police officers laughing and talking about stupid subjects while they are on radio putting calls on hold , and when i asked them about it they said “its just a mucilaginous” calls they can wait.
    at that point i didn’t know exactly what was going on until i worked as a cab driver and start having direct contact with all kind of customers and some of them they lead you to call the cops wich is never gone well , every time i have to wait over 2 hours for an officer to show up and some times no one shows up until i leave without my rights as a us citizen. i pay taxes for those people to serve me and serve the community but i never get served.
    what should we do in this case because its the first in the hole nation that when u needed help from officials they never put you first as a citizen.
    god bless all america and bless our citizens.

    Reply this comment

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