After Tax Hike, Chula Vista Struggles to Meet Promises
Chula Vista promised it would hire several new firefighters and police officers when it raised sales taxes. The money is coming in but hiring is going slowly.
In the middle of a Chula Vista City Council meeting last week, Councilwoman Jill Galvez announced she was firing her only aide. He was not happy.
It wasn’t because she didn’t like him, she clarified. Instead she wanted free up money to hire firefighters and police officers.
Her colleagues, however, declined to follow her lead. But, as the Union-Tribune first reported, the money was not reallocated to public safety budgets. So a man is out of a job and nothing came from it.
Galvez’s stunt has triggered a recall effort. And all of the drama she kicked up overshadowed an important point: The city is not yet making good on promises it made to voters last year in a campaign to increase the city’s sales tax. City leaders offer a variety of excuses. But lack of money is not yet one of them.
Supporters of the tax hike centered their campaign on the city’s need for police officers and firefighters. A lot of that was based on the city’s own presentation about what it could do with the funds.
“We need to hire more officers to keep our community safe,” read one mailer sent to homes by supporters of the tax increase.
Galvez said the budget does not include what was promised.
If the city had not hired new police officers or firefighters as it promised voters, that would indeed be a big story. It would mean that the city was merely plugging a budget hole from the past with a tax increase and just treading water as opposed to increasing city services.
First, Chula Vista is projecting that it will get more money in the next year than it did before the sales tax increase: $18.3 million to be exact.
So did it actually hire more police officers and firefighters?
Well, yes and no.
The groups that supported Measure A promised major investments in public safety. The tax would lower response times to emergency calls, increase police patrols, reduce crime and more.
A projected $18 million each year was planned to fund 43 positions in the city’s police department by 2023 and 36 positions in its fire department by 2025.
The collection of the Measure A sales tax began on Oct. 1, 2018. Now that the tax is in place, it is collecting money. And just like it thought, the city is projecting $18.3 million in revenue from it in the upcoming fiscal year.
What’s Actually Happening
So far, Measure A has helped Chula Vista create five new positions for sworn police officers. But the city was only able to fill one of those positions.
(Remember: In government budgets, a position is not necessarily a person. Positions are measured as “full-time equivalents.” So if one person works part time, 20 hours a week, and another person works part time, 20 hours a week, they equal one full-time equivalent. And those positions sometimes sit unfilled.)
The city also created four new civilian positions, like police dispatchers and community service officers. Two of those positions have been filled.
There are now 234 sworn police officers. That is up from 231 in 2018. But in neither year was the city able to fill all its available positions. This year, the city could have 15 more officers on staff but officials say they simply can’t fill the positions.
“The funds are there. The efforts are there,” finance director David Bilby said. “But the number of people that make it through the academy and pass all of the background checks and want to be police officers right now, it’s just not enough.”
The fire department numbers are a bit more straightforward. The city only has one additional firefighter compared to before the tax increase. But the department also now has several unfilled vacancies.
Last year, it could have paid 141 firefighters but only had 137 on staff. This year, it could have 149 firefighters but only has 138 on staff as of Wednesday.
The city will continue trying to fill those positions. And, in addition, starting July 1, the next year’s staffing goals will kick in. City officials have budgeted for 10 more positions in its police department and seven more in its fire department.
So it will have been a year since taxes were increased but there has been very little change to the number of people patrolling Chula Vista’s streets or responding to emergency calls. That doesn’t seem to be due to financial struggles, however.