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Council Veers Toward Reckless Spending Policies
I write this lament from Memphis, TN, where I have accompanied my wife to her high school reunion.

With "Mayor" Viramontes leading Richmond City Council's powerful new voting block, a 7-2 majority adopted as policy last Tuesday allocation of nearly $4 million for hiring of additional police officers. This is just the tip of the iceberg, with long-term pension liabilities and annual raises adding unspecified additional millions. It is unclear where the money will come from or how it will be used. Although the original objective was described as increasing police presence in high crime areas, later discussion included increasing compensation to attract more applicants for nearly two dozen existing vacancies, raising the possibility of no increase in police presence at all, just more money for the level currently authorized.

Those who supported the policy refused to speculate on the source of funds, instead telling the city manager to simply "find it."

This is the latest of several radical policy initiatives, including dismantling public participation in Design Review, spearheaded by Viramontes, who is increasingly being referred to on the street as "Mayor Viramontes," because she appears to firmly control a voting block of at least five and possibly six council members. Whether this is simply a matter of like-minded legislators coalescing around a common philosophy or a more overt exertion raw political power for other covert purposes is a subject of increasingly widespread discussion in Richmond.

What is known is that there has been no dissension on any controversial subject among the "Viramontes Five" since the new Council was seated in January of 2007 and Sandhu was selected by Viramontes to fill the seat vacated by Mayor McLaughlin.

In a perfect world, we would all like to see more and better paid police officers in Richmond, and perhaps there is even a way to get there. However, the rational approach would be to look for revenue first and to balance public safety needs against other critical needs before jumping. For example, Richmond has the worst streets in the nine-county Bay Area. It is likely that increasing the police budget will rob funds from street maintenance, park upkeep, recreational programs and economic development initiatives. Results of a city-wide poll on such needs will be available as early as next week, and it would have made sense to wait for the results before making such hugely expensive policy decisions.

For many years, I have been used to being on the short end of votes on issues involving developers, industries and public safety unions. After winning re-election in 2004 with what is still the highest vote count ever given a Richmond candidate and the election of a new non-establishment mayor in 2006, I hade high hope for a more balanced City Council that better reflected the will of the people rather than the will of special interests. Well, apparently I was wrong, and I guess I had better settle back in and once again get used to being in the minority.

Following is what the West County Times has to say about the matter:

Council taps funds for new officers

  RICHMOND: Move to earmark $3.8 million for more police comes despite risk of money going unused

By John Geluardi

CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Contra Costa Times

Article Launched:06/01/2007 03:07:51 AM PDT

 

Richmond will set aside millions of dollars to hire 37 new police officers even though the city has been unable to fill existing vacancies.

By a 7-2 vote this week, the council earmarked $3.8 million for the officers, with vague information about where the money would come from. Despite requests from three council members and a suggestion by City Manager Bill Lindsay to study the potential impact on city finances, Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who wrote the proposal, refused.

"I'm not prepared to give up making the policy decision tonight," Viramontes, who leads the council majority, said Tuesday. "Adding police officers is the one thing that we know will have a significant impact, and we need to do it."

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin voted against the funding designation, arguing that the city will be hard-pressed to hire that many officers in a highly competitive market and that the money likely will go unused. Councilman Tom Butt also voted against the plan.

"Recruiting is difficult, and letting this money sit is fiscally irresponsible when we have so many needs," McLaughlin said. "It's unrealistic to see millions sitting idle in the police budget when it could go to jobs development, after-school services and other social services that address the root causes of crime."

The policy is geared toward raising the current police staffing ratio of 1.5 officers per 1,000 residents to three officers per 1,000 in the city's high-crime neighborhoods. The recommended state ratio, according to Viramontes' report, is 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents. Viramontes' goal is to reach a sworn complement of 215 officers by 2009, which would be the most officers the city has staffed at one time. Currently, the city employs 155 officers, 24 below its authorized complement.

But Viramontes did not explain the urgency for approving the policy without a financial analysis, nor did she mention in her proposal that the police department has been struggling for months to recruit new officers for whom funding has already been approved.

Viramontes' plan is similar to a failed proposal by then-Mayor Irma Anderson in July. Anderson, who was voted out of office in November, asked the council to approve a measure for the ballot that would have taken $4 million from the general fund to bring police staffing to a minimum of 215 officers. Anderson wanted another $2.5 million for anti-violence programs.

But the council majority -- including Viramontes and Councilmen John Marquez, Nat Bates, Jim Rogers and Tony Thurmond -- criticized Anderson's proposal as irresponsible and voted it down.

Viramontes' plan is different because some of the funding would come from the Economic and Community Redevelopment budget, Marquez said.

But taking money from redevelopment funds to pay police salaries is highly unusual and expensive. Because of the special way the redevelopment agency leverages funds in the bond market, taking, for example, $1 million out of its investment stream would cost $12 million during a span of 30 years, according to city officials.

"We have to do something," Marquez said. "Other cities in Contra Costa County are offering recruits more money and helping them with down payments on homes -- all things we're not doing."

Starting salary for a police officer in Richmond is $71,292. By comparison, Antioch's starting salary is $61,668, Brentwood's is $65,520, and Concord's is $57,000.

Richmond city staff now will study the financial implications of the new policy. But the backwards approach of first approving policy then analyzing it later is reminiscent of the council's poor decision-making in the years leading up to a catastrophic 2004 budget crisis. Between 1998 and 2002, the council recklessly enhanced union agreements -- particularly with public safety unions -- without studying the financial implications, according to a 2004 state audit titled "City of Richmond: Poor Spending Decisions and Weak Monitoring of its Finances Caused It's Financial Decline and Hinder Its Ability to Recover."

"The city offered improved compensation packages to make them competitive with those offered by other cities and retain highly qualified candidates, thus improving the city's services," the audit says. "Instead, the increased salaries and benefits led the city to spend more than it could afford."

Richmond laid off more than 300 employees in 2003 and 2004 and made bone-deep cuts to city services, many of which have not been restored.

Staff writer Karl Fischer contributed to this story. Reach John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at jgeluardi@cctimes.com.

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