SAN DIEGO, CA — San Diego is considering significant cuts to city public safety efforts, including limiting hours for police helicopters, cutting crime investigators and canceling firefighter training for water and cliff rescues.
Other proposed cuts are eliminating a “fast response” firefighting squad in University City, delaying the roll out of roving fire engines that would reduce emergency response times, and eliminating money for police officer recruiting.
The City Council on Monday debated those cuts and many others that Mayor Kevin Faulconer is proposing for the city’s Police Department and Fire-Rescue Department.
Anglers arriving for the May 2 Barrett Lake opener will see a shrunken version of the great fishery that has been devastated by the fourth year of drought.
Faulconer’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year wouldn’t shrink the number of police officers or firefighters in San Diego, but it would make a wide variety of cuts in other areas of public safety.
Such cuts are needed because the COVID-19 pandemic is sharply reducing the city’s sales tax and hotel tax revenue, creating an estimated budget gap that city officials revised upward from $300 million to $350 million on Monday.
While the council is debating the proposed budget Faulconer unveiled April 15, city officials say even deeper proposed cuts will be included in a “May revise” spending plan that the mayor is scheduled to unveil May 19.
That new spending plan may include mild additional cuts to public safety, partly because the city will be allowed to spend some of the $249 million it received in federal COVID-19 relief on salaries for firefighters and police.
The Fire-Rescue Department cuts proposed by the mayor include eliminating the two-firefighter “fast response” squad in south University City for a savings of $390,000.
While the loss of that squad will be partially offset by a new fire station scheduled to open this fall in north University City, Chief Colin Stowell told the council Monday that eliminating the squad would re-open a documented coverage gap.
Stowell said he’s also delaying by at least a year the deployment of new roving “peak hour” fire engines. Those engines will cost more to operate than the $7 million per year the city previously anticipated because the city has struggled to boost firefighter staffing enough to rein in overtime costs, Stowell said.
Council President Georgette Gómez said Monday that while she understood Stowell’s reasoning, she was frustrated that the city is still facing the coverage gaps that the roving engines are intended to solve.
Other firefighting cuts include saving $112,000 by eliminating the Gaslamp mobile operations detail, which handles incidents in the popular downtown neighborhood during busy times such as weekends and late nights.
Despite the cuts to training for water and cliff rescues, Stowell said he is still confident that his staff could handle such rescues. Those cuts would save $115,000.
The proposed police cuts include $1.4 million from its STAR/PAL program, which mentors at-risk young people in low-income areas. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery said she wanted more details from Nisleit about plans to keep the program alive with help from nonprofit groups.
The cuts also would save $550,000 by reducing helicopter air support from 10 hours per day to seven hours per day. While the chopper provides crucial help in locating missing children and fleeing suspects, Police Chief David Nisleit said it was a sensible cut.
He said the city’s police chopper could be placed on stand-by and activated in less than 10 minutes, explaining that the savings of the hours reduction would come from less fuel and maintenance costs. He also said the county and California Highway Patrol could help with their choppers in crucial situations.
The Police Department would save another $550,000 by cutting seven police investigative service officers, who conduct witness interviews and perform other duties that help lighten the loads of sworn officers.
The proposed budget would also eliminate $225,000 for a new police recruiting effort using Internet videos and social media, which the city launched last year.
The campaign has helped the city reduce the number of officer vacancies from more than 200 to about 130, but Nisleit said the money was outside his department’s core mission of patrolling the community.
While the proposed cuts to fire would keep its budget about the same as the $285 million approved last year, the police budget would still go up from $539 million to $566 million despite the proposed cuts.
City officials said that’s because of recent police pay raises of 30 percent and some necessary spending increases, such as a new state law requiring the city to test all sexual assault evidence within 120 days.
Monday’s council debate was the first in a series that will cover every city department. A final budget is scheduled to be adopted June 8.
An online version of the budget can be found at sandiego.gov/finance/proposed