The hustle and bustle of downtown Visalia, a place alive with activity. Local residents point to it with pride. City Manager Steve Salomon says it has a lot to do with the community’s vision for its city.
“The city council in this city for decades and decades has been able to have a long term view of what they thought this city should be, and done things that were not necessarily going to have an immediate result for them, but a long term result,” says Salomon.
Salomon says the long term planning not only included smart growth, but provisions for a strong police and fire department.
“They were concerned about the gang problem. It wasn’t a crisis, but they were concerned about it. They wanted to make sure we had good police response times. They wanted the city to be safe, they wanted the fire department to have good equipment, good response times, to be located strategically throughout the city and so that was their long term goal,” says Salomon.
The concern: how to make sure the city had the necessary funding to support public safety. Visalia, like other cities had suffered through the state’s continual budget crisis. Money meant for local governments was being diverted to state coffers. City officials estimate that over a 10 year period California took more than $17 million from Visalia in property tax and other revenues.
“They knew there was a limit to how many police officers they could hire every year, they would struggle with that,” says Salomon.
So more than 10 years ago city leaders, including the city council, looked at the possibility of a public safety tax. Back then it would take more than putting an initiative on the ballot.
“Nobody in the state had ever tried to do this for a ongoing operating revenue source,” says Salomon.
Visalia had to get the approval of the state legislature to put a local tax initiative on the ballot. Legislators would only approve a quarter of a cent increase to the sales tax and it needed a two thirds vote to pass. After what was a very long process, Measure T made it to the ballot and voters approved it in 2004.
“I think it speaks highly to the Visalia community, that we’re willing to invest in our community and keep tax dollars here locally. I think you saw that with Measure T,” says Danny Wristen, battalion chief with the Visalia Fire Department.
Wristen has been with the department for 21 years. He says police and fire settled the question of how the money would be divided early on.
“That could have been a situation where police and fire really could have made it a difficult decision, but we worked cooperatively together. We looked back at historically how our departments are funded and we decided very early on that police would get 60 percent and fire would get 40 percent of the Measure T monies, and we built our plans accordingly. And I don’t think we ever looked back,” says Wristen.
How Measure T funds would be spent was laid out in detail. For police, the department would hire an additional 28 officers over a ten year period, open two new precinct offices, improve 911 emergency operations and upgrade the dispatch center.
“Currently the city has the largest number of officers on the street it’s ever seen in its history. We have 60 full time officers that are assigned to our policing district,” says Visalia Police Chief Colleen Mestas.
Mestas says having more officers on the street allows her to free up other officers who can provide specialized services like a gang unit and prevention programs.
“It was great that Visalia was the first city to achieve this sales tax override and it allows for better management to be able to go after your specific problems,” says Mestas.
Mestas says the department has improved its response times, and those on patrol like Lieutenant Steven Phillips say the department has seen other improvements.
“Actually over the last few years crime has consistently been reduced. We have had some major inroads where our homicide rate is down over the last few years,” says Phillips.
Measure T has meant big changes for the cities fire department. Battalion chief Wristen says the funds not only made it possible to hire 15 additional firefighters, but also to improve service.
“We have bought two firefighter apparatus and part of a third apparatus with Measure T money. We built a state of the art fire station and training facility in northwest Visalia that’s allowed us to not only allowed us to improve our response time into that part of the community, but also allowed us to have one of the best training centers in central California,” says Wristen.
City officials say the public safety tax has resulted in better planning. The quarter cent sales tax has remained at that level for eight years and generates about five million dollars a year, money Visalia can depend on.
“I think it’s really helped us to maintain and to grow because we knew the money was coming,” says Wristen.
Despite revenue from the Measure T, Visalia like other cities, has seen its finances tested during the economic downturn. Over the past four years, revenue from sales and property taxes declined sharply, forcing Visalia to make painful budget cuts. City officials are optimistic though. They believe they’ve seen the worst. Visalia was able to balance its budget this year.
“We’ve got challenges just like everybody else, but the council has been willing to make some very tough decisions that frankly, I think other cities maybe haven’t made,” says Salomon.
Measure T funds were not immune to the city’s budget woes. Police and fire weren’t able to add at least three positions. But Salomon says Visalia still has more officers than it would have had without the safety tax.
“In the case of Visalia, obviously Measure T has helped us deal with the recession,” says Salomon.
The added revenue makes a difference. The cost of police and fire can gobble up more than half of a city’s general fund, leaving little money for other services citizens have come to expect. Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines says it’s a juggling act Fresno has dealt with for years.
“The issue, in my opinion isn’t just simply how much we pay employees or don’t pay employees. What we have to be honest about, is that the way our revenue stream works here in the city of Fresno and our general fund, we don’t bring in enough revenue to provide all of the services people are accustomed to in the fifth largest city in the state, in the 21st century in California,” says Baines.
Baines is one city council member who believes it is time for Fresno to consider a public safety tax. He argues that since the city always places public safety as a top priority, the city needs to find a better way to pay for police and fire, services that now take up about 80 percent of Fresno’s general fund.
“A lot of cities and legislatures are being honest with the public and saying the key priorities always revolve around public safety, and the city of Fresno is no different, 80 percent of our general fund is obligated to public safety. None of us has a problem with that, but it’s difficult to pay for that and do other services as well. So what a lot of cities are turning to is a public safety tax,” says Baines.
Fresno City Manager Mark Scott says a public safety tax is worth consideration, but adds that the city would need to convince voters that the tax is going for increased services, and not increased salaries.
“We need to be able to demonstrate that if we’re doing that, we’re doing that to provide the service levels that we used to have. We take burglary reports by phone now. I’m horrified that’s all that we can afford to do. So we want to get back to the level of service we used to have,” says Scott.
Scott also says a lot of work still needs to be done with the unions representing city employees, specifically the police officers association, whose agreement with the city can’t be touched until 2015.
“We need to satisfy the public that we’re not going to ask for a public safety tax, just to pay people at levels that the San Joaquin Valley just can’t afford to pay. You’ve got to be able to show that. Otherwise people will think they’re being taxed for compensation as opposed to service. So if we can do that, if we can demonstrate that, then I think you’ve got something to talk about,” says Scott.
Unfortunately for the city manager, talk of a public safety tax will do little to help Fresno’s current budget crisis, which has the city running out of cash by June and employees facing another round of layoffs.