City staffing level dilemmas

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.

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