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Colton weighs the merits of trimming police salaries

Reducing or eliminating the force could save money, but many residents fear that either move might cost too much in other ways.

January 18, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Officer Steven Beckman of the Colton Police Department works a traffic beat. Virgil Earp, brother of Wyatt, became the towns first lawman.
Officer Steven Beckman of the Colton Police Department works a traffic… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Frontier lawman Virgil Earp tamed this wild railroad town more than a century ago, but talk to Colton residents today and they'll tell you this San Bernardino County community is once again in desperate need of cleaning up.

This time the trouble isn't rowdy desperados blasting streetlamps, it's a history of corruption and the same recessionary pressures that have ravaged many other Inland Empire towns.

Two former mayors and three former City Council members have been indicted over the last decade. The Stater Bros. grocery chain vacated its Colton corporate headquarters two years ago and moved to San Bernardino; and just last year, the city's former finance director made a $700,000 bookkeeping error — in the red

But those aren't the only misfortunes that have settled on this blue-collar city of roughly 50,000.

After laying off nearly a hundred city workers, Colton still faces a $5-million budget shortfall. In an effort to balance their modest $30-million budget, city officials are considering auctioning off the town's gas-fired power plant or issuing pink slips to a third of the police force. The city has also discussed padlocking its police station and firehouses and contracting with San Bernardino County for emergency services.

The problem is compounded by declining tax revenues. The "Miracle Mile" stretch of RV dealerships off Interstate 215 — a long-time golden goose of sales tax receipts — has seen dealerships close as sales plummet. Also, a lucrative yet enormously unpopular utility tax tacked onto power, telephone water and cable television bills is set to expire in June.

In the face of such austerity, some residents fear for the city's future.

"Colton has had its troubles, that's for sure, and the money situation doesn't look so good now,'' said Arlan White, owner of Patriot Towing on the south side of town. "But I don't see how getting rid of cops on the street is going to make anything better.''

On a recent Tuesday night, White huddled with two dozen like-minded residents at the local pipefitters union hall and strategized on how to save the Police Department; a number of them credited officers with guiding them out of troubled teenage years.

"I don't want no sheriff here. He doesn't know my city. He doesn't know the parolees. He doesn't know the dope houses. He doesn't know the kids who depend on the [police activities league] officers,'' Colton resident Darrell Fisher said at a recent council meeting.

Fisher said that, years ago, he was a teenager sleeping on the streets and using drugs, and that it was a Colton police officer who helped him turn his life around.

A Colton constabulary has existed since the city was founded in 1887, with Virgil Earp becoming the town's first marshal after his famous stand with brother Wyatt at the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.

Today however, Colton residents are more likely to witness bare-knuckle political brawls than gunfights.

During the last election, the city's police union not only backed the losing candidate but also campaigned actively against the ultimate winner, David Zamora.

Just recently, when the council started discussing police layoffs, the police union highlighted the salary and benefit package of Rod Foster, Colton's city manager, who took the job a year ago. Foster pockets $220,000 a year, less than his counterparts in the neighboring cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, towns more than four times the size of Colton, but a few thousand dollars more than what Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa collects.

Zamora and Foster insist, publically, that there's no bad blood and that their primary focus is maintaining public safety while putting the city's finances in order.

Zamora, during his first council meeting as mayor, was quick to cut off public comment — angering residents who had come to voice support for the Police Department. At meetings since, however, the mayor has allowed all interested residents to address the council.

"When you set aside emotion and focus on the issue, that is what will allow us to deal with the issue,'' Foster said. "It's a math problem.''

Some council members want to put the unpopular utility users tax — which brings in $4.9 million a year at an average household cost of $40 a month — on the June ballot and let voters make the call. But given the town's 15% unemployment rate and the fact that Zamora campaigned heavily against the utility tax, the odds don't look good.

Greg Castillo, president of the Colton Police Officers Assn., said the city's 58 officers have already agreed to make $1 million in concessions. It's clear, he says, that the city wants more.

"If we don't take more concessions, they've made it clear they'll contract out to the Sheriff's Department,'' said Castillo, adding that negotiations with the city are continuing.

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