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Strapped City Finds Lean Is Also Mean : Finances: Residents complain of inadequate police services. City staff won't get cost-of-living raises. But new sources of revenue to ease the fiscal crunch are proving hard to come by.

July 14, 1991|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

These days in Baldwin Park, it is not unusual for desk officers in the Police Department to jump out of their chairs and into patrol cars to answer emergency calls.

Officials in the financially troubled city are talking about recruiting volunteer homemakers and retired people to prowl city streets and parks, on the lookout for crimes and city code violations.

Baldwin Park, a city of 69,000, is so strapped for cash that it has cut 26 of 191 city positions in the last three years, including eliminating its entire code enforcement department. The city also has the lowest police officer-to-citizen ratio--fewer than one for every 1,000 residents--in Los Angeles County.

"We've not only cut down to the bone, we've cut to the marrow," said Mayor Bette L. Lowes. "We've completely depleted our contingency fund."

Baldwin Park's fiscal crunch came to a head this year when the city's preliminary budget assessment came up $370,600 in the red. The city leaders did what they've done for the past three years: cut back. Expenses were cut $441,000 and new revenues of $220,000 were raised through fee increases and state aid.

Officials balanced the $25-million budget with a slight cushion for emergencies but no cost-of-living increases for city staff and Police Department employees. The city's 1990-91 budget was $24.1 million.

With the stubborn recession gnawing at already meager city sales tax revenues, next year's prospects are not much brighter.

A revenue-generating idea to bring legalized gambling into the city in the form of a card club was voted down last month amid a storm of protest from local church and community groups. Other ideas for raising money, such as new taxes and special police fees, may prove equally difficult to get from the city's residents.

City Manager Donald Penman calls the situation "tough." At nearly every City Council meeting, residents protest slow response times on police investigations or complain about the ever-worsening graffiti and gang violence in the city.

The council has been vigilantly scouting new sources of revenue. In the past few weeks, members have raised fees, including doubling admission to the city swimming pool from 50 cents to $1, and inquired about taxing bingo games run by charities and church groups.

Another idea, to charge each resident and business a special yearly fee for police protection, would have to be approved by two-thirds of the city's voters in the April, 1992, election. Penman said that if each household were charged $50 annually, $750,000 could be raised for police protection. The council may decide next month on whether to put that measure on the ballot.

Tax increases, though, are difficult to get from voters. A similar proposal to raise money for a new police station in Monrovia by charging residents a yearly fee went down to a narrow defeat last month.

The council is now looking into reinstating a 5% utility tax on residents and businesses that was first imposed in 1985. It was suspended after it sparked voter outrage and a City Council recall in 1987. That was the last tax measure to go before Baldwin Park voters.

"It was a very, very emotional issue and a real political hot potato," said Martin Gallegos, the city's newest council member. "I don't see that this time. I think people are more ready to rally around the city than they were four years ago."

The 5% utility tax does not need voter approval to be reinstated and could raise more than $2 million annually.

The council's priority is to put most of that money into its 60-officer Police Department. Six police positions have been cut since 1989, despite the fact that half of the city's budget goes to police services.

"I simply cannot provide the level of service the community deserves," said Police Chief Carmine Lanza. "What I've done is started to cut service levels just to stay up with high-demand cases. We've cut back on the types of reports we take and the types of crimes we investigate."

Although the Police Department still responds to emergencies within an average of three minutes, Lanza said, that is only because every officer available responds when there are not enough patrol cars in the field.

A police staffing study currently under way has already shown that in 1990, major crimes rose in Baldwin Park by 22% and gang-related crimes rose by 24%, Lanza said.

Much of the fiscal crunch in Baldwin Park stems from the fact that the city has a weak economic base, generating a low amount of sales tax per capita. Nearby cities like West Covina and El Monte are home to big sales-tax generators like shopping malls and car dealerships, Penman said. But efforts to woo major retailers to open up shop in Baldwin Park have failed.

"The retailers I've talked to so far are reluctant to locate in Baldwin Park," Penman said. He acknowledged that the city has a blue-collar, high-crime image that makes attracting retailers an uphill battle.

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