As city departments jockey for funds Petaluma doesn't have, the Police Department found one of its 62 positions on the chopping block last week — much to the chagrin of several council members, the mayor and the department itself.

"I never thought I'd be asking you to not fill a funded police officer position," said Police Chief Patrick Williams at last Monday's city council meeting. "But we're between a rock and a hard place and I need to act."

Due to what Williams called unforeseen expenses, the police department only has the funds to pay for two of three open positions it needs to fill: a dispatcher, a dispatcher supervisor and a patrol officer.

While all city departments have felt the financial squeeze over the past few years, the police department has taken especially large staff cuts. What was once a 78-officer department just five years ago has shrunk to a 62-officer team that seldom has all its officers in the field due to injuries and leaves of absence. The department also dropped from 12 dispatchers down to 9, forcing dispatchers to work 12-hour shifts and excessive overtime, according to Williams.

Though the Petaluma Fire Department has cut firefighter positions during the same time period — opting to hold several positions open at different times to help reduce costs — the number of firefighters on duty has not changed for the most part. With the exception of one year when the firefighter's union agreed to drop its minimum daily staffing from 14 to 13, the fire department's day-to-day operations have remained mostly intact.

City Manager John Brown said that due to a clause in the firefighter's labor contract with the city that requires the department to have 14 firefighters on duty at all times, the fire department has only lost one fire inspector's position during the same time period the police department lost its 16 officers.

"If personnel cuts are the necessary course of action, and they cannot be equally applied to one group of employees, then the other groups bear a heavier share of that load," Brown said this week.

The firefighters's union contract is set to expire on Dec. 31, meaning that the city will soon enter into labor talks with the group. Brown said that what the city asks for from its bargaining units in the future — fire and all others — will hinge on the City Council passing a tax measure in the November 2014 election.

"Despite all the sacrifices the city made during the past five years, our projections for future fund balances are all in the red starting in (fiscal year) 2014," said Brown. "Everything will definitely not be OK if we don't see a lot of revenue relief. Until we see the results of the survey regarding services and taxing options, it would be premature to guess what course of bargaining action the city might need to take with any of its units."

But according to police department officials, as well as some other city officials, the fire department's minimum staffing levels are hurting other departments.

"(The Fire Department's) minimum staffing requirement has had an impact on the police department in terms of us being able to hire officers, keep our specialty units staffed and keep the number of patrol officers where it should be for a city of almost 60,000 people," said Petaluma Police Officers Association Vice President Ron Klein. "For example, from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. every day we only have — at most — four officers on patrol. No matter what, the Fire Department always has 14 people on duty."

During last week's City Council meeting, Mayor David Glass suggested temporarily reducing the fire department's minimum daily staffing requirement from 14 to 13, as a way to fund one of the police department's vacancies.

"I'm not anti-fire," Glass said last week. "But we have the Fire Department completely whole while every other one is bleeding."

But Petaluma Firefighters Union President Ken Dick said it's not that simple.

"There are nationally recommended standards on what is safe for a fire department to operate at, and we're at the minimum right now," said Dick. "To reduce our minimum staffing wouldn't allow us to do our jobs effectively."

Dick worked through the year the department agreed to drop minimum staffing to 13 and said it was very difficult.

"To do our operations, we need everybody, " he said, explaining that with fewer people, their ability to operate some vehicles suffered, among other things. Fire Chief Larry Anderson said that if the department cuts staff, it could put the department at risk for safety hazards.

"It would be tough for me to say that we could do as good of a job as we do with less," said Anderson. "We understand the city is in tough times and I tip my hat to the Police Department for doing all it has done with its more severe cuts. But you create safety risks for the guys working if you cut any farther."

Petaluma City Councilmember and former Fire Chief Chris Albertson said that in a major fire event — much like a blaze that occurred in 2002 on Kentucky Street and burned several buildings — dropping minimum staff makes a difference.

"While we've done it before, we never had to deal with a major blaze during that time, "said Albertson. "In 2002, when we had a large fire and were staffed at 14, people wondered if we could have responded better if our four firefighter-paramedics had been available, instead of on ambulance calls at Petaluma Valley Hospital. Now we're talking about going to 13? We just can't take that risk."

Klein said that the police department understands the fire department's financial constraints as well, but said he believes the fire union's contract has impacted the police department's ability to provide basic public safety services.

"We were at 78 officers, we're barely hanging on at 62 now," said Klein. "It's affected us a lot."

Albertson pointed out that the Petaluma Fire Department is already operating with a smaller staff than other nearby cities with similar populations.

"There are departments like Napa, San Rafael and Novato — all with similarly sized populations and needs — that have larger departments," said Albertson. "It boils down to the fact that Petaluma will have the emergency services they are willing to pay for. You can't have it both ways. You can't have quality emergency response and not be prepared to pay for it."

Brown said that by reducing police overtime and taking smaller amounts from other department budgets, the city has found a way to fill the vacant police department positions for now. "But at this point, virtually everything is a tradeoff," he said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)