By Stephen Baxter
Santa Cruz Sentinel
WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Eight new police officers and six new firefighters are expected to be added in Watsonville next year, after a sales tax increase that voters narrowly approved in early June.
On Sept. 1, Watsonville's sales tax will rise a half cent to 9 percent, the highest in Santa Cruz County. About $2.8 million is expected to be collected annually for seven years, and the city's police and fire departments will split the money 60-40, respectively.
With a city budget still reeling from an economic downturn six years ago, police and fire leaders said Measure G aimed to add police and firefighters in part to cut down on overtime costs. They also wanted to replace aging equipment, and police wanted to continue the city's five-year trend of declining crime.
"This financial assistance really couldn't come at a better time," Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano said this week.
Police say they hope to fill eight police positions to get to the police department's budgeted total of 68 officers in 2015. In seven years, they expect to have 75 officers.
Police also plan to dedicate a few officers to work on long-term problems such as drug houses and gang houses in the city, Solano said. By working with landlords, Santa Cruz County Probation and State Parole, police can try to clamp down on neighborhood nuisances rather than reactively respond to problems with patrol officers.
Measure G money also is expected to replace radio equipment, worn-out Taser guns and some of Watsonville police's 23 patrol cars. About seven of those cars need to be replaced, Solano said.
Police leaders also plan to bring back the crime analyst's position to help them track problems in the city and focus on problem areas. Money is also earmarked for the Police Activities League, which includes youth sports programs, and the Caminos program, which is for first-time youth offenders involved in minor crimes.
"I want to give the chief a ton of credit for getting Measure G passed," said Watsonville Police Lt. David McCartney.
Solano and Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee knocked on doors, met with community leaders and helped organize events. Police officers, on their own time, also walked precincts and talked to residents about the measure's benefits to public safety.
"It was a lot of work by a lot of people," Solano said.
For Watsonville Fire, Measure G money is a chance to add a new unit of firefighter-paramedics for the first time in about four decades, fire leaders said. Watsonville's city population roughly has doubled in that time to about 51,000 residents, yet its firefighter staff has remained level, authorities said.
"We're excited to be offering more services to the public," Bisbee said.
The agency was down to about 24 firefighters this year. Measure G money is expected to get to its fully budgeted staff of 33 firefighters.
Because about seven in 10 calls for service are for medical emergencies rather than fires in Watsonville, Bisbee plans to add two firefighter-paramedics in a new unit.
Watsonville firefighters have said they've been spread thin with multiple calls at the same time. They also have noted a rise in calls to east Watsonville during late afternoons during heavier traffic.
To improve response times to the east side, firefighters recently have placed a fire engine near East Lake and Eaton avenues. More staff means that the east side engine could be there more often, said Bisbee.
"We've been so low staffed," Bisbee said.
He would also like to replace some aging "turnouts," which are the coats, pants and boots that firefighters wear — but the priority is more people.
To attract new recruits to the fire and police departments, leaders will have an open house on Aug. 9 at Watsonville Fire Station 1 at 115 Second St.
An oversight committee for Measure G money is expected to convene in early July to start its work, and the money can be tracked on www.opengov.com. Watsonville city leaders this year opened its books to the website, which also tracks finances for other cities.
"We've really made transparency and being responsible the goal of this whole measure," said Solano.
©2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)