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San Diego's money woes put a real crimp in police operations

The city of San Diego’s financial woes have received plenty of press. So has the fact that the police and fire departments are in such bad shape that a half-billion dollars are needed just to bring staffing levels up to par and to replace aging equipment. Police needs account for the lion’s share of the total, about $300 million.

Just how bad is bad? We went to assistant chief Bill Maheu, the San Diego Police Department budget guru, and got him to open the books.

“We’re getting the job done, but that’s only because we have some miraculous people around here who are doing some amazing things,” says Maheu, noting that for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, the department is operating with a $25 million shortfall.

The city has 2,031 sworn officers in the streets, down 74 from the budgeted number, and recently ended a 13-month dry spell in which not a single new officer was hired. That puts San Diego’s ratio of cops per thousand people at 1.62, the second-lowest big-city average in the nation—and a far cry from average ratios as high as five in large East Coast cities like Washington, D.C.

Retention is also a problem. “Hardly a week goes by without a retirement party, or two or three,” says police spokesman Dave Cohen. Low salaries are a key issue, and not just at the cop-on-the-street level. John Welter, executive assistant chief, left the department in March to become top cop in Anaheim. His salary there is the same as SDPD Chief William Lansdowne’s, $169,000—even though Anaheim is one-fifth the size of San Diego and has a 300-officer force.

Then there’s the matter of the SDPD’s aging fleet of vehicles. The department is short 100 black-and-whites, and of the 1,436 in service, 56 percent have more than 70,000 miles and 128 have in excess of 100,000 miles.

“Fortunately, I’ve got an auto-maintenance staff that’s done amazing things over the years in getting much more useful life out of these vehicles,” Maheu says. It’s not just the engines. Instead of replacing light bars at $600 a pop once the plastic casing becomes shaded, Maheu says, “our garage guys cut the plastic out and slip a new piece of plastic in, which costs just pennies.”

Unfortunately, there’s no similar quick fix for the department’s aging computers, some of which are more than 10 years old. “In a world of technology,” Maheu says, “that’s not good.”

Three years ago, the department began yanking the antiquated mobile data terminals out of patrol cars and replacing them with laptops. But due to budget constraints that project, too, has stalled, with 600 conversions still to go.

“I understand some of those [mobile data terminals] are on display in a museum in Phoenix,” Maheu jokes.

Cohen chimes in, “It’s gotten so bad that we’re not authorized to order new business cards. If we do, we have to pay for them ourselves.”

“They’re considered a nonessential service,” Maheu adds.

But there’s hope. The city council last month gave tentative approval to a new police budget plan of $323.4 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, a 12 percent increase from the current budget. A final vote is scheduled for this month.

In addition, because the department is down so many officers, nearly $5 million in salary savings can be applied to the coming year’s budget.

“That’s going to take care of some deferred maintenance,” Maheu says, “as well as converting our department to digital cameras, another thing most big police departments already have.”

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