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Proposal to Retain Officers Unveiled

San Diego's mayor offers a possible pay hike in an effort to stem the `blue flight.' The police union says the plan falls short.

July 12, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former police chief, presented his long-awaited plan Tuesday to stem the flow of San Diego police officers to other law enforcement agencies.

The key feature is the possibility -- although not a guarantee -- of a pay hike next year.

That tentative promise was met with a lack of enthusiasm by the police officers labor union.

"This plan falls short of giving officers a reason to stay," Steve McMillan, vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn., told the City Council minutes after Sanders' plan was unveiled.

Police staffing has proved to be one of the most difficult problems facing Sanders as he attempts to lead the city out of its fiscal dilemma while keeping his political promise not to disturb the city's tax-averse reputation.

The plan also would make it easier to hire officers by boosting the recruiting budget and streamlining procedures. Slowness in filling vacancies puts additional burdens on the remaining officers, making them more likely to leave, officials believe.

Dozens of officers are leaving for jobs with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and suburban police departments, where salaries are higher and pensions more stable.

Like other city employees, San Diego police officers have had their salaries frozen and their contributions to the pension fund increased as the city tries to erase a $2-billion pension deficit.

But unlike many employees, officers are receiving job offers from other cities. Even before the so-called blue flight, San Diego had one of the smallest departments of any major city.

San Diego, with 2,100 authorized positions in its Police Department, has 1.5 officers per 1,000 residents. That compares with about 2.6 per 1,000 for the Los Angeles Police Department.

"Our staffing levels have become a crisis here in San Diego," Sanders told the council.

But even what Sanders calls a crisis is not enough to move him from the no-tax-increase campaign pledge favored by his major backers in last year's mayoral election: the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.

In virtually every category of local taxation, San Diego is at the low end.

After the brush fire that destroyed hundreds of homes in fall 2003, a measure to boost the hotel-motel tax to provide for additional police and fire protection failed at the polls.

Sanders said that a review will be done of salaries and benefits at other departments to determine how far San Diego has fallen behind.

"That's good, but that's not going to keep an officer here today," Councilman Anthony Young said.

Preliminary figures compiled by Sanders' staff showed that a police sergeant in San Diego can make a top salary of $81,619, compared with $105,352 in San Jose, $96,798 in San Francisco, $95,025 in Los Angeles and $90,177 in Escondido.

In a video to be played for officers, Sanders made an emotional request to officers: "I ask you to stick with me and your fellow officers.... We want you to stay; we need you to stay."

San Diego also has fewer firefighters than other cities, as numerous city task forces have noted. A local Indian tribe recently dispatched three dozen of its own firefighters to supplement the city department during the summer fire season.

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