The bankrupt city of San Bernardino, CA voted last week to slash its fiscal-year budget by $26 million, to close up a $52.4 million shortfall. No, $26 million isn’t enough, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But the $26 million will have a significant impact on the operating budget for police and fire, and that’s got folks in a tizzy.
The difference in the law enforcement budget won’t mean a big cut in the current sworn police force. It’s down to 270 today, from a mid-2000s high of 358, but that cutback has already happened. The new budget figure caps personnel at 260. As officers retire, they won’t be replaced until the number drops below 260.
Although its crime numbers have declined overall since 2005 (leveling out in 2011 and 2012), San Bernardino remains among the most dangerous cities of its size in the country, posting about twice as many crime incidents as the national average. Violent crime in San Bernardino is especially high, twice that of California as a whole. San Bernardino’s 260 officers compare favorably to the 214 on the Gilbert, AZ police force, a city in the same size category (200,000-215,000). But Gilbert’s crime numbers are lower – much lower. Cities with crime rates similar to San Bernardino’s, like Spokane, WA, Birmingham, AL, Richmond, VA, and Rochester, NY, have much larger police forces, running to sworn-officer rosters between 700 and 800.
So the San Bernardino city attorney advised citizens at a community meeting in November to “Go home, lock your doors, and load your guns.” In response to the media furor over this suggestion, James Penman had this to say:
In an interview Thursday, Penman said that he stands behind that advice, and he’s gotten nothing but positive responses from residents since then. He said the only criticism he’s received has been from the media…
“I can understand how people who don’t live or work in the City of San Bernardino and don’t hear the sirens every night, the gun shots, the helicopters overhead, as many San Bernardino residents do, might not understand the significance when you have people being killed in their homes,” he said.
Penman said he is only repeating what police officers have told him: that the city can provide only basic law enforcement services due to recent cuts.
“We need to stop giving people false hope,” Penman said. “We have to start encouraging people to protect themselves. The situation is that bad in San Bernardino.”
Now, I think there is something to be said for parsing Penman’s words. San Bernardino isn’t letting police officers go. It’s not like things are going to immediately get worse than they are now. The point is not so much that things will change, with the new budget, as that things won’t change. San Bernardino has all the police officers it’s going to have for the foreseeable future. If crime gets worse – too bad. The city can’t afford to do more about it.
San Bernardino is also cutting fire department overtime by 35 percent, which ought to be interesting. It has been very humid over the past week (I live about 35 miles from San Bernardino), but that won’t last. San Bernardino will see fire season again.
Even the $26 million in spending cuts doesn’t make up half of the city’s shortfall, however. So San Bernardino is deferring its contributions to CalPERS, the state pension fund in which government workers are invested. (Their employers, like the city of San Bernardino, contribute to the fund.) The city plans to renegotiate its other pension-bond obligations with bondholders. The current-year deferrals will amount to $35 million.
CalPERS has formally objected to the “deferral” plan – adopted as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceeding – because of the virtual certainty that San Bernardino will never make the deferred contributions. The city’s current unfunded pension obligations are $143 million, a sum larger than San Bernardino’s total general-fund revenues in each of the last ten years.
Of course, CalPERS’ own problems are staggering. The fund’s invested value declined nearly 5 percentbetween July 2011 and July 2012, which hasn’t helped with the estimated
$398 billion by which CalPERS is underfunded versus future pension obligations.
San Bernardino County got $936 million from the 2009 federal stimulus – $464 per county resident – but that hasn’t improved the economy in the area. The city of San Bernardino is now the second-poorest large city in America (Detroit is the poorest).
After creating brief notoriety for the county, the idea of using eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages and modify them – i.e., reduce the mortgage amount to the current market value of a property – has gone silent. But interest in the idea is still there, and advocates will be pushing it again in 2013. Declining revenues from properties with non-performing mortgages are a big annoyance for local governments.