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Huntington Hears Painful Budget Options

Council is told that police and fire service would shrink and libraries could close.

June 24, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

To help patch an $11.5-million midyear budget shortfall, Huntington Beach residents may have to accept slower responses by the Fire Department, reduced police attention to drug and gang enforcement, and the closure of two of the city's four libraries, according to testimony in a public hearing Monday.

The seven-member City Council grilled city staffers on belt-tightening measures, including proposals from the fire, police and library departments. Whatever budget is approved during the council's July 7 meeting, the cuts will be deep and painful, city residents and officials at the meeting said.

"We are looking for the best combination of bad choices," said City Administrator Ray Silver.

City officials say the slow economy and failure to meet revenue projections are the reasons for the midyear budget adjustment. The city's fiscal year begins in October.

On Monday, the council was particularly wary of sacrificing public safety for the sake of savings. Board members questioned Fire Chief Duane Olson for more than an hour, longer than any other speaker.

Under Olson's proposed spending plan, no firefighters would be laid off, but funding would be eliminated for one fire-paramedic engine company, made up of three fire captains, three engineers and three firefighters. None of those positions are filled. The practice of covering the unfilled positions with overtime hours would stop.

Noting research by his department, Olson said the move would sink Huntington Beach further below the national average of one to three firefighters per 1,000 residents for municipalities of comparable size. Huntington Beach would dip from 0.69 to 0.64 firefighters per 1,000 residents, he said.

As a result, response time would suffer, he said. "It's going to take us longer" to get to medical and fire emergencies, he told the council. Among other cuts and reorganizations of the Fire Department, city officials will also consider reducing several fire safety education programs.

Police Chief Kenneth W. Smalls proposed elimination of funding for two police sergeants and 10 police officer positions now unfilled, among other moves. Patrol levels would stay the same, however, because detectives from gang, narcotics and vice investigation units would be sent back out onto the streets, he said.

But, as with the Fire Department, response time and service will suffer, Smalls said. With more detectives out on patrol, "there are some crimes that will get less attention," he said.

Several residents opposed the suggested cuts in public safety, saying that they would put people at risk, and offered their own ideas. "There are three helicopters," pointed out resident Bill Todd. "The city does not need three helicopters."

Smalls countered that cutting helicopter services would affect a principal crime-fighting tool that has a role in 14% of his department's arrests.

The most vocal opposition from council members and the public was toward the proposal to close two library branches.

Mayor Connie Boardman said she would rather see all city libraries close part of the week if it would bring the same savings as closing two branches, which libraries chief Ron Hayden proposed. The city's central library is now open seven days a week.

City resident Michael Carddock told the council such cuts "would mean a lot to the community. Both of these branches are mini-community centers."

The council will keep reviewing reports on possible cuts.

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