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Santa Barbara Fire and Police Chiefs Discuss Staffing, Programs During Budget Workshop

Chiefs Pat McElroy and Cam Sanchez outline new training and enforcement efforts, and propose modest fiscal increases for 2014-15

Santa Barbara’s fire and police departments are working on new programs but won’t have many budget changes for the coming year, leaders told the City Council on Monday during a budget workshop.

The chiefs said both departments have struggled to keep staffing levels high with a rush of retirements but seem to be leveling out.

The Fire Department has a training tower on Olive Street and the decades of burning fuel on the bottom floor has taken its toll, Fire Chief Pat McElroy said. The concrete is damaged, so the department wants to buy new structures for live burn training, which is required by the National Fire Protection Association.

McElroy said he wants to buy modular training systems that look like shipping containers to help firefighters learn about fire behavior, air movement and using small amounts of water. He is asking the city to contribute $120,000 to buy them and the other half would come from grants.

The structures can burn certain types of fuels — such as wooden pallets — inside to “get people to feel some heat without putting them in a lot of danger,” McElroy said.

The tower would still be used for high-rise, rope and ladder training; it just wouldn’t be burned anymore.

The City of Santa Barbara uses a two-year budget cycle with a financial plan adopted every two years (most recently in 2013) and an operating and capital budget every year, which has to be approved in June.

The Fire Department proposes a $23.9 million budget for the 2014-15 year, a slight increase from the current year.

Police Chief Cam Sanchez and his management staff talked about the aggressive enforcement in the 600 block of State Street (between Ortega and Cota streets) and the downtown corridor.

In the first month of enforcement, which started in March, police made 18 felony arrests and 50 misdemeanor arrests and issued almost 600 citations. Police are responding to complaints about aggressive panhandlers, “vagrants” and groups of “young urban travelers” who ask for money, block the sidewalk and harass passersby or people in outdoor dining areas, Sanchez has said.

The city also has taped off a brick art installation in front of The Habit that was a common spot for groups of backpack-toting travelers to sit for long periods of time.

The number of citations is going down over time, as people who are cited make their way off the main corridor, Sanchez said. Police officers from various departments have been pulled off their projects to join this enforcement effort, including the four beat coordinators (who are meant to each respond to an area of the city) and some narcotics officers.

Overall, the Police Department’s budget is expected to stay mostly the same expect for a 2.2 percent increase in supplies due to inflation, Deputy Chief Frank Mannix said. The department is proposing a budget of $37.9 million for the 2014-15 year and expects revenues to increase.

Almost half of those revenues come from parking citations and fines (including impound fees), which is the goal, Mannix said.

Even though the department has 144 positions filled, only 127 people can actually work — there are 12 people out on injury and five others on family medical leave, medical leave or in the academy, Mannix said.

He and other police managers insisted that 17 is the highest they can remember, but Mannix said the department has been down by at least 10 officers “for months and months.”

Most of the injured are patrol officers, and police are estimating the department will have an average of 14 people out of commission next year. The number varies day to day, Mannix said.

The City Council has authorized the Police Department to “over-hire” — recruiting and hiring officers above the number of budgeted positions — to avoid low staffing, but it’s been difficult to get candidates past the background checks, Capt. Gil Torres said.

During the last round, he hired only one person out of 216 taking the written exam.

The department still has a problem recruiting and retaining dispatchers, with eight vacancies of 18 positions, so Torres said the department has to pay overtime or use officers to fill in.

He hopes the brand-new communications center in the Granada Garage will help attract people. The city’s combined communications center is moving from the police station’s basement due to seismic concerns.

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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