A growing number of politicians and taxpayers in San Diego are asking whether keeping San Diego safe is solely in the hands of its firefighters and police officers.
The issue is at the forefront of discussions going into this year’s mayoral race, and has divided candidates as they make known their priorities and goals.
Here’s a guide to some of the challenges ahead.
The Police Department’s staffing levels has and will continue to challenge their public safety abilities, said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officer’s Association.
It’s estimated that among highly populated cities, San Diego has one of the lowest officer-to-citizen ratio. The department is about 150 officers below budgeted strength, plus an additional 50 recruits who can’t be placed. Since the department started losing officers, reports show most crime is down. However the department can only sustain this trend for so long, Marvel said.
“We’ve gotten better at utilizing our resources,” he said. “Our department has shown that we continually step up, but we’ve been running at that high level for a long time. You start burning people out.”
On the horizon, retention of officers will be one of the department’s biggest challenges, Marvel said. The department is having trouble filling police academies, and officers are receiving fewer retirement benefits. With the cost of training an officer at $171,000 for just the first year, the department’s benefits will need to be more attractive so that officers don’t leave after training.
They city’s fire department is no less in need. In a Citygate Associates report, planners identified 10 locations where firefighters should be and are not. Adding stations here would shave minutes off response times. Building those stations would benefit the public, but would be useless without addressing the department’s more dire need – staffing.
About two years ago, the department had about 940 firefighters. It is now below 800 firefighters, said Frank DeClercq, president of the San Diego Firefighters IAFF Local 145. About 30 firefighters left in the past month due to changes in retirement benefits, DeClercq said.
“It’s a cascading effect,” DeClercq said. “With our diminishment of firefighters, and being 10 stations short, we’re having difficulty adding to first responder engine and truck companies.”
Each has to have four people, DeClercq said. Through holidays, some employees are forced to work 24-hour shifts.
“They get mandatorily ordered back to work,” he said. “Some of them don’t mind working more days because they get paid overtime, but the majority don’t want to.”
The departments’ troubles have divided the candidates running for mayor – let alone taxpayers who are increasingly viewing the departments’ financial needs as a threat to services such as public education, infrastructure and supporting the pay and benefits of city employees.
Marvel and DeClercq both agree that public safety will have to become a top priority for the next mayor.
For more on these issues and others facing this year's elections, visit our Decision 2012 page here.