Public safety is the single largest expenditure for most local governments.
In these austere times it shouldn't be surprising that when the mayor and city council members of San Jose, the state's third-largest city, were forced to pare more than $100 million from the 2011-2012 city budget, significant cuts hit law enforcement.
The number of personnel in the San Jose Police Department shrunk to 1,043, down from 1,102 the previous year.
At first blush, these numbers might bring little more than a yawn.
After all, what's the big deal about reducing the number of police by about 5 percent?
Some might answer "plenty," given that the number of homicides in San Jose has soared from 20 in all of 2010 to 28 during the first 8 months of 2012.
That number may grab the headlines, but the true answer to changes in police services lies in the details that few of us ever consider.
Here are some of the changes the department has been forced to implement because of budget cutbacks:
- Excessive noise complaints no longer receive automatic police responses
- Reports of recyclable thefts will no longer generate a police investigation
- Illegal street corner vendors will no longer be cited
Still undetermined is how the department will manage responses to non-injury traffic accidents and fire alarm calls.
Several nearby cities have eliminated services in these areas, placing more burdens on those tangled in the accidents and homeowners.
Many of these reduced services may seem relatively unimportant, and they may be until you eat tainted food from someone without a food vendor license or become en-snarled in a traffic accident that requires a neutral third party to assess the issues.
More to the point, reduced law enforcement services in cities across California point to the extent to which citizens are willing to accept less governance as a trade-off for avoiding tax increases.
All these reductions along with the changes precipitating reduced numbers of fire department employees, fewer library hours, closed cultural centers, and longer waits at permit lines could be avoided by the voters agreeing to a small sales tax hike. But recent polls suggest that no such support is in the offing.
The trade-off is clear.
At least for now, the voters are willing to have fewer services if it means no increases in taxes.
The roles of local government are shrinking before our very eyes. How much more will it shrink until we have no local government at all?