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Big cuts without line level reductions

Rob Bhatt

When South Lake Tahoe Police Chief David Solaro attended a class earlier this summer for new fire chiefs put on by the state fire marshal, he sat next to the police chief from Sausilito.

They were the only two in the roughly 30-member class with no prior firefighting experience.

To varying levels, communities across California have consolidated the services of their police and fire departments. Some have firefighters cross-trained to work as police officers, and vice versa.

And, in virtually every case, the primary motive has been financial.

One of the most significant aspects of the South Lake Tahoe’s 1997 city budget, which becomes effective Oct. 1, will be the consolidation of administration within the police and fire departments.

These two departments have in the past combined to receive about 60 percent of the city’s operating expenses. After this year’s cuts, public safety will receive $7.5 million (52 percent) of the trimmed down $14.4 million spending package.

The savings this year is projected at $296,000 from the elimination of three fire department positions – including chief – and three police positions. The elimination of a police commander spot next year is forecast to bring the total, on-going savings to $381,000, or more than one fourth of the $1.4 million in total cuts.

Fire Chief Jim Plake, who retires Sept. 30, is the only current employee who will lose his job due to the cuts this year. Three other fire department employees are accepting jobs within the reorganized departments.

Although the cuts are significant, the consensus seems to be relief about sparing line level staffing at the expense of administration.

Patrol officers, detectives, firefighters and captains staffing the engine companies were shielded from this round of cuts.

“The intent here is to keep the departments functioning separately in their own specialties so there is no negative impact on the public,” Solaro said last week.

The goal may have helped preserve positive morale among the line level firefighters and police officers who endured salary freezes in three of the past five years.

The South Lake Tahoe Police Officers Association was nearly unanimous in its support of eliminating positions rather than accepting salary cuts, said Officer Terry Daniels, association president. He said officers acknowledge the city’s budget woes and have not taken an adversarial position against city administration despite past cuts and salary freezes. However, they do expect to be rewarded when things improve.

“Everyone recognizes this is not the city’s fault,” Daniels said. “But we believe things are going to get better, and when they do, you have to take care of the people who are still here who have been doing more work.”

Reaction is reportedly mixed among firefighters.

Some firefighters question whether a police chief can accurately understand and advocate department’s equipment and staffing needs. However, by joining with about 50 police officers, the roughly 40 firefighters will become part of a 90-member group when it comes to advocating public safety needs, said Fire Capt. Scott Douglas.

The fire department’s division chiefs have been entrusted with managing training, inspections and supervisorial roles within the fire department – duties they already perform.

Solaro does not intend to make operational decisions in the field.

And neither Solaro nor Fire Chief Jim Plake expect service to be different under the new system when citizens need emergency help.

The real difference may come when someone with a question about fire safety or inspection calls administrative headquarters at the police station. Callers may have to wait until police clerks research questions with appropriate fire officials, Solaro said.

But the real question about this consolidation may be how long it and the apparent harmony it has created will last.

Even before the consolidation takes effect, those closest to the merger say that its only benefit it financial.

“Jim Plake and I both agree that, once the city’s fiscal situation is better, he and I believe each department should have separate chiefs,” Solaro said.

City officials have taken no formal position on if or when police and fire department administration will revert back to its pre-Destination 2000 structure.

“Just because we get some additional money down the line doesn’t mean we will hire another chief,” said Richard Anderson, the city’s general services director. “The basis of what we would be looking at would be operational efficiency.”

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