Every East Valley community is planning to scale back public safety efforts this summer, raising concerns that cities will be less able to respond to fires, emergency calls and crime.
And perhaps most important of all, be less safe.
Many prevention efforts will go away and response times could rise as firefighters and police take on extra duties.
On the chopping block so far: Tempe’s gang and crime prevention units. Every Mesa firefighter who inspects high rises and high-risk buildings. Chandler police’s anti-drug education program. And millions in proposed cuts in Gilbert that includes about 67 members of the police department.
The cuts mean cities won’t know what hazards threaten the public, Mesa Councilman Scott Somers said. Without constant scrutiny of high-risk businesses, Somers said it’s only a matter of time before a preventable massive fire or chemical leak threatens a neighborhood.
“We’re putting at risk firefighter safety,” Somers said. “We’re putting at risk community safety.”
Mesa and Tempe would cut more public safety efforts than other communities. In Tempe, residents and the huge influx of visitors and university students would be in a city without a crime prevention unit, gang squad, narcotics squad or homeland defense bureau. And if somebody fell into Tempe Town Lake, the dive team would no longer be around to recover the body.
Voters will have a say how deep the cuts are in Tempe and Gilbert, which have set a May 18 election to raise their sales tax.
Gilbert residents are considering a quarter-cent sales tax that would raise $7.3 million a year to prevent some fire and police cuts. Public safety cuts will likely be deep there, as the town has said police and fire will take the brunt of the 125 job cuts planned for the 1,200-member workforce. The town would trim staff from crime prevention and special investigations. Also, it would eliminate its fire investigators and community education. The tax would prevent some cuts, but they have not been identified yet.
Public safety officials are concerned about the impact even without knowing what might be lost, said Jim Krauger, president of the Gilbert Police Leadership Association.
“Cutting the police department would be like having a 12-man football team,” Krauger said. “They can still try their best job to get the touchdowns, but eventually, your time is going to run out. Ultimately, you’ll have a losing record.”
Gilbert enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in Arizona, and has been listed as one of the top 25 safest places to live by Forbes and Money magazines. But it also has one of the smallest police forces compared with the population, with 1.03 officers per 1,000 residents. The national standard is about 1.85 officers per 1,000 residents.
“That is grossly dangerous, but no matter what happens, we will strive on giving the best services we can to make the town safe,” Krauger said.
Tempe voters will consider a two-tenths of a cent sales tax to raise $8 million a year, and more than $5 million of that would save some police and fire programs.
In all communities, officials say quick response times are a priority as they consider cuts. That means shrinking or eliminating some specialty units like fire prevention or a gang squad to shift employees to front-line jobs. They’re also cutting management positions, training, overtime and civilian employees.
Chandler’s planned cuts are the smallest. Response times have been falling and Chandler City Manager Mark Pentz said the cuts have focused mostly on internal matters so officers are still on the street.
“I’m optimistic that these cuts will not affect response times,” he said.
But behind-the-scenes cuts will jeopardize emergency response and homeland security, firefighters say.
Mesa won’t be able to apply for homeland security grants, and could lose millions worth of specialty equipment in the coming years. The city’s fire units would become far busier if they take on some fire prevention duties like inspecting buildings, Chief Harry Beck said.
Mesa has cut its fire department seven years in a row.
Firefighters would take on some fire inspections, but that worries Somers, also a Phoenix firefighter. The inspectors found 15,000 violations in the last three years.
Inspections can prevent catastrophic fires, he said, such as a 2001 Phoenix fire where pool chemicals were stored in a warehouse that didn’t have a proper fire suppression system. An inspection would have better protected a building that instead burned to the ground and sent a toxic cloud though a neighborhood, Somers said. A lawsuit resulted in Phoenix paying a multi-million settlement.
“The idea of just eliminating fire prevention doesn’t make any sense to me,” Somers said.
The city’s police force will become less flexible, losing 119 vehicles. That will leave few spares when cars break down and create a “logistics nightmare,” said Bryan Soller, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Mesa Lodge No. 9.
“When there’s not enough vehicles, that means we’ll be placing two officers in one, which actually would be safer for the officers,” Soller said. “But, I’d rather see them cut vehicles than cut jobs.”