Mesa police could be hard hit by budget cuts

Mesa police could be hard hit by budget cuts

Regardless of whether Mesa voters approve a $170 million public safety and street project bond on Tuesday, Police Chief George Gascón warns that his department is charging toward financial pain that could include cutting back the SWAT team and motorcycle patrols.

“We are going to be severely impacted,” Gascón said of pending budget cuts facing the city.

Department and union representatives have met regularly to determine how to best shrink the department’s $162.2 million 2008-09 budget $5 million to $15 million, Gascón said. Depending on how deep those budget will cuts run, layoffs are possible. Our goal collectively is to try to save jobs,” Gascón said Wednesday. “We are exploring a lot of different things.”

Police Department officials have known for some time of the budget crisis and earlier this year cut $3 million in overtime pay. Yet, because of the turbulent economy and shrinking tax revenue that fuels the city’s budget, it wasn’t enough.

In addition to halting overtime, the department has frozen open positions and has backed away from plans to purchase 25 vehicles.

Officials are also discussing whether to put full-time SWAT officers on part-time SWAT and part-time patrol duty. Police union officials agree cuts are needed, but disagree on changes to SWAT.

“Getting rid of a full-time SWAT team is drastic,” said Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association, one of two police unions. “If you can’t call on SWAT when you need them because they’re now part-time, and are no longer well-trained because they’re part-time, you are going to have a (less safe) city.”

Sgt. Bryan Soller, president of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, another union, said a full-time SWAT team is a luxury in good economic times, but when the economy goes sour, a part-time team is better than none at all.

“When times are bad, we need them on the street,” Soller said. “All the other stuff makes us work more efficiently, but the bottom line is we have to take care of our patrol officers on the street.”

Among other possible changes:
• Motorcycle officers might be patrolling in cars. Gascón said motorcycles can be expensive to maintain and when a motor officer makes an arrest, they must call for a squad car to transport a suspect to jail.
• Each Officer might no longer each be issued a laptop computer. Every squad car will have a laptop, but officers could soon be filing more reports using desktop computers at headquarters.
• Handheld police radios might also have to be shared, instead of new officers being issued one when they are hired.
• More civilians could be taking reports on minor incidents when an officer isn’t necessary.

“We are down to the bone in many areas,” Gascón said.

On that, the unions agree.

“Mesa residents have been spoiled,” Soller said. “The citizens are going to get the police force they pay for. Right now we are pulling everything back in and are going back to Policing 101.”

As police move forward with proposed cuts, Monday saw $1 million in budget cuts to the city’s fire department’s $62 million 2008-09 fiscal year budget.

Last week, Fire Chief Harry Beck announced that his department would halt a number of programs and freeze overtime.

In a recent video message to fire personnel, City Manager Chris Brady said cuts to police and fire budgets are unavoidable. They account for more than 70 percent of the city’s budget.

“There is no way we can take out the funds needed only out of those other departments,” Brady said. That will require a significant reduction or elimination of city programs.

City officials hope to narrow their proposed budget cuts within two months to implement reductions Jan. 1.

“It’s not a Mesa-unique thing. We are susceptible to the economy,” Brady added. “All ideas will be considered.”