Friday, November 16 , 2018, 8:56 am | Fair 55º


Santa Barbara Police, Fire Budgets Propose No Cuts to Staffing, Services

Department officials outline their plans to the City Council, taking into account fiscal and other challenges

Despite labor concessions expiring this year, the Santa Barbara police and fire departments aren’t planning to cut positions or services, officials told the City Council on Wednesday.

Fire Chief Andy DiMizio said the department expects the same number of calls for service going forward, but there may be more medical emergencies because of the growing baby-boomer population. He said only 3 to 4 percent of calls are actually for fires, while 70 percent of calls are for medical emergencies.

During a time many departments have to cut back on services, the Fire Department is maintaining its more specialized services, such as hazardous materials response and urban search and rescue, and even expanding its influence to collaborate with the waterfront department on water rescues, according to DiMizio.

“My goal is to have a happy ground where we have full staffing but we’re able to get people to come back on overtime,” he said, adding that he has found it to be more cost-effective to have firefighters work overtime than to hire additional people, as long as there are enough people to avoid burnout.

For the next fiscal year, he proposes level staffing of 110 positions for administration, operations and prevention. The department keeps 29 people staffed at all times and tries to alternate hiring people from other departments and having open recruitment, since it wants some local people who are more connected to the community, DiMizio said.

Last year, he said, the department had issues with outrageous amounts of overtime, which can be caused by backfilling for people out on illness or injury leave, vacation, bereavement, maternity or paternity, retiring or training.

“This year, we’ve got about 5,000 fewer hours of lost time to date, which is very notable,” DiMizio said.

To put that in perspective, every hour of overtime costs about $45, so the department expects to save about $250,000 just from better managing of overtime hours.

He said some older employees retired, which made a big difference since they take a proportionately bigger amount of injury and illness time.

Administrative services manager Ron Liechti recommended a $21.79 million budget. Salary and benefit costs make up 89 percent of that and have increased since last year. Labor concessions expire at the same time negotiated raises take effect, all while retirement and medical benefit costs have increased.

Both the fire and police departments noted that they expect to spend much more money on fuel next year because of rising gas prices.

The Fire Department gets a lot of its funding from reimbursements from other agencies such as American Medical Response, building plan checks and fire code permits, and the Proposition 172 half-percent sales tax approved in 1992.

The department met its goal of lowering response times to less than four minutes for 80 percent of medical emergencies and plans to further improve on that next year, DiMizio said.

Prevention staff members are always working on defensible space issues and have worked hard on code enforcement in the high-fire-hazard-area properties. DiMizio said firefighters have been manually mapping out those areas to enhance pre-planned response and evacuation efforts, too, using GIS data collection.

He said he hopes to have maps available on their mobile data computers that include not just buildings and utility lines, but driveways, water sources, bridges and other information to give to responding units in case of another Tea Fire or Jesusita Fire. Once the information is gathered for the foothill areas, they’ll work across the entire city and coordinate with neighboring agencies.

Police Department

Police Chief Cam Sanchez plans to keep his 203-position staff, which includes the chief’s staff, investigative division, patrol division and administrative services. The patrol force, which operates in 10-hour shifts with six teams, had an average of six minutes for response times, which he called “pretty outstanding.”

The City Council authorized Sanchez to “over-hire” to ensure the department could hire up to 141 officers since many of those are not able to report because of injuries, illness or other reasons. Sanchez expects the operational strength of the force to be the same next year.

Deputy Chief Frank Mannix presented the proposed $35.8 million budget, which gets most of its revenues from the city’s General Fund. It generates some revenue itself, more than half from parking citations and some from fees such as vehicle release fees when a car gets towed. Former business officer supervisor Karen Flores was charged with embezzling more than $500,000 of parking citation money and subsequently fired; Mannix is still interviewing candidates for a replacement.

Like the Fire Department, there will be salary and benefit increases because of raises, concessions ending, and overall retirement and health benefit costs going up, Mannix said.

Capt. Alex Altavilla said property crime rates have been increasing, which isn’t helped by the criminal justice realignment, meaning people know they won’t go to prison or even spend much time in jail for their offenses.

Assembly Bill 109 is probably going to be one of the most challenging things we as an organization, as a city, as an investigative division are going to have to deal with,” he said, adding that the Police Department is working closely with the Santa Barbara County Probation Department on that.

The restorative policing program was financed by the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency, but the city decided to go ahead with it next year — and hope the funding isn’t axed by the oversight board monitoring the leftover RDA funds.

Sgt. Ed Olson said the program has helped 1,468 people in six months with just two officers, outreach workers and community liaisons.

The program tries to break the cycle of prolific offenders, usually for nuisance or alcohol- or drug-related issues, who are frequently arrested and taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, all on the taxpayers’ dime. Restorative policing program workers put those people in touch with services, reunite them with family members and place them in sober living or other housing, Olson said.

His numbers include: 2,334 follow-up visits by his two officers; 79 new placements; 194 call for service interventions (when restorative officers know the person at issue); 15 reunifications with family or friends; and 1,468 people who have been connected with some kind of assistance.

Some of the younger groups of people are travelers who don’t want services and in fact often come from affluent homes, Olson noted. They live on the streets for a while then move along, and they’re often the focus of the enforcement efforts.

He said many complaints are directed at legal activities, but Olson and his team look for creative ways to effect change.

“The jail is overcrowded. We’ll just keep filling it up if we arrest people, while this has long-term beneficial effects,” he said. But “if we arrest them, we can talk to them when they’re sober; they’re not talking to us through the bottle. We try to get them back to a life of dignity, ask them what used to get them up in the morning — it’s sometimes the first step to getting people on track.”

The City Council must adopt a budget by June 30 and will begin making decisions after all departments have made their presentations.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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