The Star-News


Police in distress

Sat, Nov 06 2010 12:00 PM Posted By: Allison K. Sampite

The Chula Vista Police Officer's Association is doing what they can to save a total of 44 police positions, but it may not be enough.

According to Chula Vista City Manager Jim Sandoval, the association must agree to four things to address pension reform.

They include no longer taking cost of living increases, paying 9 percent of their salary toward retirement, creating a two-tier system that would change pensions from receiving 3 percent of their retirement at age 50 to 2 percent and receiving no medical pay at retirement.

Last month, Sandoval handed out pink slips to 33 city police officers and demoted 14 others. If established, these layoffs would reduce patrols in high-crime areas by 50 percent, affect DUI enforcement and investigations and completely eliminate the School Resource Officer Program. Currently, the SROP unit is comprised of 14 officers.

According to director of communications for the association, Lt. Phil Collum, no agreements to the four items have been made yet in discussions with the city.

Collum has worked for the Chula Vista Police Department for more than 15 years and served as the communications director for the CVPOA for three years.

Bonita Vista High School Principal Bettina Batista said she's always felt fortunate to have school resource officers. "While I understand cuts need to be made, they shouldn't make cuts that have a negative influence on the education of kids," she said.

One of the repercussions to the potential layoffs increased time in responding to priority 1 (life threatening emergency) and priority 2 (misdemeanors in progress or burglary alarm) calls. The city of Chula Vista is the second largest city in San Diego County with approximately 230,000 residents.

According to Collum, the city currently has one officer for every 1,000 residents, which is the lowest per capita ratio in the county. If department layoffs occur, the ratio of officers to residents will drop to .83. At a Chula Vista council meeting, police Chief David Bejarano said it would take longer to respond to radio calls.

Collum said the most common citizen-initiated calls are false burglary alarms, disturbances involving people, domestic violence and traffic collisions.

In addition to the 33 layoffs, another 11 positions that are currently vacant will not be filled. According to a Chula Vista Police fact sheet, the CVPD has purposely kept those positions vacant as a savings measure.

The officers who were given pink slips represent 20 percent or one-fifth of the officers on the street.

Angela, 37, and Bob Bennett, 39, have served a combined 14 years as Chula Vista police officers and are two of the 33 officers who will lose their jobs in January. Since both received pink slips last month, Bennett and her husband have been looking for work. They have two children, their son is 6 and daughter is 3 years old.

The Bennetts bought a home shortly before receiving layoff slips; however, Bennett said they are not looking to move. "Chula Vista is our home and our every intention is to stay here," she said. "Our only option is to find work before we lose our home and then are forced into possibly relocating."

Bennett said their daughter notices the stress. "When I was paying bills and became upset, she asked me why I was crying and I told her that I was sad about work," she said. "The stress associated with the layoffs is enormous and the kids are definitely picking up on that no matter how much we try to protect them from it."

Batista experienced firsthand the importance of sufficient police officers for the city.

On Sept. 25, a man entered Batista's home and pointed an object at her demanding money. She screamed and the man attacked her, striking her five or six times in the face. Batista was able to escape and called the police, one of the two who arrived she recognized as a previous school resource officer at Bonita Middle when she was the principal.

"It was the most horrific experience of my life," Batista said. "But what has helped me to recover from the emotional trauma is knowing the police department executed excellent police work within a matter of minutes. I wondered often if the police had not responded so quickly whether I'd be telling you this today."

Collum said he wants to know why city staff is making cuts six months early. He said laying off police officers in January only gives the department two more months to come up with alternatives to saving the positions. The estimated deficit for the 2011/2012 fiscal year isn't effective until July 1, 2011.

According to Collum, city staff asked the police department to cut $3.4 million by starting the proposed layoffs early, leaving a salary savings of up to $5.5 million by the end of the 2011/2012 fiscal year, leaving $2.1 million in "slush funds."

"How will this money be spent?" Collum asked.

"Our POA has given up many concessions in the past, yet pension reform seems to be the hot topic on everyone's ballot this year," Bennett said. "Therefore, I feel that as an organization we have to do what is best for the majority of the members while keeping in mind that the economy is suffering and times are tough."

Collum said the city is rushing the process, making it difficult to find a realistic solution. "This is moving too fast," Collum said. "They've cut the amount of time we have to find alternative resources. Are you giving enough time to allow people to make the right decisions?"

Collum said the city is trying to use the two-tier system as leverage that won't impact the city until 30 years from now.

"We don't come to work for a pension, but we do come to work every night knowing there's a chance we might not come home," Bennett said. "It seems there should be some point in the middle where both sides can agree without the 'all or nothing' attitude the city manager is demanding."

According to Collum, the city and police department have looked at grants as an alternative funding source. Recently, the police department applied for a grant that they did not receive, but would have saved about six officers' positions.

It doesn't seem appropriate for the city manager to be asking for so much at one time with the threat that if we don't do what he asks, officers will be let go, which will compromise other officers' safety along with the community's safety," Bennett said. "I currently work on a squad where every one of the officers except one has received a pink slip... We go to work every day and night due to our calling to become a police officer."

According to Collum, the CVPOA is continuing to work with the city to find reasonable ways to meet the challenges of the projected budget deficit and put the city in a better footing for the future.

"I think the citizens of Chula Vista should not have to worry about their safety," Batista said. "I'm speaking not only as a citizen of Chula Vista, but also as a principal.


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