Stockton offers glimpse into cities that don’t have the political will to control their budgets

Crime is out of control in Stockton, and the city’s unwise financial management over a decade plays a big role in the problem.

As a Fresno Bee editorial says about the north Valley city: “Squeezed by its own profligate spending and the housing crash, it was forced to lay off almost 25% of its police force and cut pay and benefits for those who remained.

“Veteran officers retired or took other jobs. A police force of 441, already too small for a city of close to 300,000, dwindled to just 329. As the police ranks thinned, Stockton’s homicides ticked upward, from 24 in 2008 to 33 in 2009 to 49 in 2010. If this year’s trend holds, the number of homicides would triple in just four years.”

Stockton has filed for bankruptcy protection, but that doesn’t make its streets any safer.

In Fresno, finances aren’t as bad, but Mayor Ashley Swearengin has had to make several moves to protect the public safety budget. That includes outsourcing garbage service to collect annual franchise fees from the private companies. She first privatized commercial garbage service, and the City Council on Thursday took its second of three votes to privatize residential garbage service.

Swearengin will also have to get concessions from the police union. Unfortunately, she and the council unwisely extended the Fresno Police Officers Association contract until 2015. That limits the city’s options in trying to control city finances.

Even with garbage privatization maneuver, the city still faces a $5 million budget gap. Fresno isn’t Stockton, but it still has major financial problems.

Could we have a super-cop union with consolidation?

Unions representing Fresno police officers and Fresno County sheriff’s deputies have been skeptical of efforts to consolidate public safety services in the Fresno metropolitan area. That hasn’t changed with the latest move by the Fresno City Council to hire a consultant to do a cost-benefit analysis of consolidation.

But the unions may be looking at this all wrong. Imagine how powerful a combined police/sheriff union would be if the forces were actually merged into a single law enforcement agency. This super-cop union would be even stronger than the separate Fresno Police Officers Association and Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

FPOA leader Jacky Parks says he’s worried that the union’s bargaining rights wouldn’t be respected in the consolidation move. I’m not so sure. A super-cop union would have elected officials terrified, and they’d likely give in to many  contract demands.

Union leaders are rightly concerned that consolidation would cut the number of officers, affecting their safety on the streets and their job security, as well as the clout of the two unions. I think the public would demand that a consolidated force provide at least the same number of officers. Why would voters support such a massive change if public safety would be lessened?

Those who should be concerned about consolidation are the high-ranking officers in both departments. You wouldn’t need two administrative staffs, with all the deputy chiefs and assistant sheriffs.

There’s always the fear of the unknown and unintended consequences of such a fundamental change. But the cop union that would come out of consolidation would be a powerful representative of officers and deputies — no matter what color of uniform they would ultimately wear.