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Contracting out police force not in Lincoln's best interest

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren became my hero at last Thursday’s fiscal sustainability committee/City Council workshop. Before I explain why, I want to acknowledge the nine fiscal sustainability committee (FSC) members and their subcommittee members. They volunteered hundreds of hours the last nine months to create a report for the city. That says a lot about a community in which numerous residents donate their time. Fiscal sustainability committee members worked hard in compiling 112 recommendations for Lincoln’s economic health. They talked about financially-troubled Stockton and Hercules and didn’t want Lincoln to join the list of cities that may be headed toward bankruptcy. That many of the committee’s recommendations are already in place by Lincoln city staff reinforces that City Council and staff are on the right track to balancing our city’s funds. “While the city of Lincoln’s name seems to be appearing whenever the city of Stockton or the city of Hercules bankruptcy discussions occur, the city of Lincoln is not dealing with the same budgetary issues,” Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep told me Friday. “Under the direction of the City Council, city staff has been reducing expenses to match decreasing revenues since as early as 2008 when I arrived and discovered the budget imbalance. These reductions in spending have come in the form of labor salary and benefit concessions, layoffs and increased efficiency of operations. The city will continue to make the adjustments in the future that are necessary to avoid bankruptcy.” With all due respect to the fiscal sustainability committee, I strongly disagree with its recommendations to contract out police and fire services respectively to the Sheriff’s Office and CalFire. And so does Shelgren, who at last Thursday’s workshop, heard fiscal sustainability committee member Larry Whitaker and then committee member Rich MacKirdy urge the city to contract out public-safety services. Whitaker, the committee’s General Fund subcommittee chairman, said the Lincoln Police Department “is not a full-service department” and has “basically” become a patrol unit that can’t fight gangs. MacKirdy, the committee’s compensation subcommittee chairman, said that Lincoln police are well-paid and that Lincoln employees are “very well-taken care of” with “Cadillac benefits.” By that time, Shelgren had heard enough and responded to MacKirdy. “The job our officers do on the street is a little more critical than the guys who puts nails on shelves at Home Depot or Lowe’s,” Shelgren said. “Every week, they put their lives on the line. We do get paid good wages but we do a damn good job for it. The officers earn every penny. Get your facts straight.” I asked Shelgren Monday why he responded to MacKirdy. “I’ve attended all of the FSC meetings; I’ve worked with a couple of FSC members (Jim Datzman and Larry Whitaker). When they made their presentation, they checked and double fact-checked their facts,” Shelgren said. “Richard MacKirdy said it was too difficult to get the information as far as salaries and benefits of neighboring jurisdictions but he was able to get other information from the Internet on his other points. Frankly, all I heard at the FSC meeting was what Richard MacKirdy has been saying for two years at City Council meetings. But the FSC was supposed to be objective and look at all options.” The police chief also pointed out that his officers have agreed to salary and benefit cuts to help the city’s finances for the past few years. “Our job is a little more technical than the guy stacking nails. He was comparing us to the private sector. But who in the private sector has the responsibilities that we have? Nobody,” Shelgren said. “I got to the point where I was tired of hearing him chip away at the officers, that they make too much money, that their benefits are too good. The officers deserve every dime they make. They have made salary concessions, giving up raises and paying their own PERS costs.” Besides the committee’s lack of sensitivity to our police, who take pay cuts to lessen the city’s General Fund deficit, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to switch to the Sheriff’s Office or CalFire. “I know the Sheriff’s Department would cost more. Our officers have taken 5 percent cuts for three years. Sheriff’s deputies get 3 percent increases every year,” Lincoln Mayor Spencer Short said. “It’s very unlikely we’ll save any money unless we greatly diminish our existing services.” And with no disrespect meant for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, after observing its substation in Colfax when I worked in that city from 2005 to 2007, I am now spoiled with Lincoln’s Police Department. Simply put, the Colfax substation seemed closed more hours than it was open every day. I like to know officers are in city limits, ready to respond, at any hour of the day. But I didn’t have that luxury in Colfax, with the Sheriff’s Substation just doors away from my office. Shelgren’s the type of boss I admire, someone watching out for his staff. “Someone had to stand up for the jobs the officers are doing and also the firemen,” Shelgren said. “They’ve been beat up enough over the process. It’s dragging them down. Everything coming out of the FSC is, ‘Reduce salaries and benefits or contract out.’ They’re constantly holding that over their heads and yet the officers still do their jobs.”