Making public pay for budget cuts

Sacramento – Last year, one of my reporters and her adult son were walking in downtown Sacramento when a couple of young toughs tried grabbing her purse. She pulled back her purse, and the robbers lunged at the two of them, leaving the son’s face covered in blood. Despite a frantic call to 911, the Sacramento police never showed up, nor did they respond to her repeated attempts to file a police report. Mom and son were OK, but a violent attack midday in downtown Sacramento apparently is not a serious-enough crime to warrant any police response.

Apparently, this incident is not unusual. “Armstrong & Getty,” a talk-radio show in Northern California, recently featured a morning drive-time discussion during which listeners shared similar stories of police indifference.

Police officials are blaming budget cuts for their cutbacks in service, but it’s hard to accept this explanation. The other day I saw an officer giving tickets to three teen-agers who were caught riding their bicycles without helmets. One downtown Sacramento officer rides around on a horse and gallops after people who jaywalk. There’s clearly the manpower to hand out tickets (but not to clean up the piles of manure the horses leave behind). It’s a question of priorities.

A recent Modesto Bee report points to this trend: “The California Highway Patrol is handing out more traffic citations than it did a few years ago, and that has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for state and local governments.” Another relevant statistic:

The average CHP officer who has retired in the past couple of years is bringing home a guaranteed pension of $98,000 a year (after 25 years of work), with automatic cost-of-living increases.

Police departments aren’t available to provide the services that the public depends upon, but they do have the manpower to increase their revenue-generating ticket operations. They are spending incredible amounts on salaries and benefits. And public safety budgets are consuming the lion’s share of city budgets. In crime-plagued Stockton, where, because of budget cuts, police will respond only to violent crimes or crimes in progress, 80 percent of the city’s entire budget goes to “public safety,” according to the city manager. If cities spend more on police and fire services, that will leave less than a pittance for everything else.

Police officials acknowledge they are cutting back on services. For instance, in 2010, in the face of budget cuts in the notoriously crime-ridden city of Oakland, the police chief “listed exactly 44 situations that his officers will no longer respond to, and they include grand theft, burglary, car wrecks, identity theft and vandalism,” according to an NBC report. According to a USA Today report last year, “Budget cuts are forcing police around the country to stop responding to fraud, burglary and theft calls.” As budgets have tightened up, the problem is only getting worse.

I previously wrote about Alameda city firefighters who refused to save a suicidal man drowning in San Francisco Bay, then blamed the inaction on budget cuts that deprived firefighters of training for cold-water conditions. This sparked widespread outrage in Northern California, especially after the fire chief told a TV news show that he would not even save a drowning child because of the budget-caused restrictions.

Also, don’t expect better service if you have a civil lawsuit pending before any of the state’s court systems. “San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein announced drastic cuts … to the city’s civil court system in response to funding slashes in the current state budget,” according to the Pleasanton Weekly. “‘We will prioritize criminal, juvenile and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits.

“‘Beyond that, justice will be neither swift nor accessible,’ said Feinstein.”

This is a hissy fit. First, officials look everywhere they can to drum up new revenue. Notice all the new “fees” added to traffic tickets.

Sacramento charged drivers or their insurance companies fees of $495 to $2,275 when drivers were involved in a collision that requires a firefighter response, then repealed it in the face of public outrage.

When officials can’t find enough pennies under the sofa cushions, they engage in what is known as “Washington Monument Syndrome.” When the multitrillion-dollar federal government “closes,” the first thing the officials do is close down the low-cost attractions in the hopes that tourists run home, clamoring for higher taxes. When we see tough times in local budgets, angry officials try to inflict as much pain as possible on the public by denying us services. At every step, they try to scare us into giving them more money. But they also work to assure that we cannot take care of ourselves.

We’re supposed to wait patiently for a police response that might never come. A 1982 state Supreme Court decision (Davidson v. City of Westminster) reminds us the police do not have to help us.

But don’t take matters into your own hands! California’s Draconian gun laws, for instance, put severe limits on our ability to protect ourselves. The public-sector unions also have assured that cities cannot contract out police and fire services to private bidders, where competitive pressures might improve customer service and efficiency.

Governments could improve the bang for the taxpayer’s buck if they reformed pensions, cut back on work rules, brought salaries in line with the marketplace and reduced the special protections that make it nearly impossible to discipline or remove ill-performing employees. Don’t hold your breath.

In the private sector, companies would minimize the pain on customers, who can take their business elsewhere. In the public sector, agencies spend money like crazy, and when they run out, they withhold services.

This is why government is supposed to be limited to the few tasks that cannot be provided in the marketplace.

We need to reject the scare tactics and insist on real, competitive reform. Otherwise, we might be the ones left waiting for the squad car that never comes.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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