Vallejo struggles to keep city safe during bankruptcy

Photo by Angelo P. of the Vallejo Independent Bulletin

It was just about two years ago that the city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy and started hacking away at its public services. Just last month, in the wake of heavy cuts to Vallejo’s police force, a wave of violent crimes gripped the town, leaving cities all over the Bay Area wondering what toll budget cuts can take.

What happens to a city when it’s reached the brink?

Reporter Adelaide Chen has this story.

ADELAIDE CHEN: On any given night, about ten police officers working the swing shift patrol the streets of Vallejo. On a recent Wednesday, one of them was Officer Drew Ramsey.

It was almost two years ago that Vallejo went broke. Literally. When it declared bankruptcy, it was the first ever for a California city of over 100,000 residents. At the time the police department had nearly 150 officers. Today Ramsey is one of a hundred--half of what you’d find in a Bay Area city with a similar size.

DREW RAMSEY: It’s not just the police department. The whole city has been affected by the bankruptcy. Everything gets cut. Our roads are not being paved when they should. Fire department is cut. Police department is cut. Schools are cut. Parks are cut. Just basically everything.

Ramsey says he hasn’t seen an increase in his paycheck since the bankruptcy.  Luckily, there is one on the horizon, but not everyone is looking forward to it.

OSBY DAVIS: We only have so many dollars. And if they in fact take the pay raise it really only means we’re going to have to cut more in the police department because we don’t have the funds to continue to pay the raise and to maintain the staff.

That’s Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis, whose city budget has shrunk to a quarter of the size of neighboring city Fairfield, which has a smaller population by the way.  Davis’s task is to steer Vallejo through its economic turmoil—a job that has increasingly been in the public eye since several violent crimes shook up his sleepy city.

Vallejo usually has about ten homicides a year. Last month alone there were three. But Mayor Davis says cuts to his police force are not to blame for the latest crime spree.

DAVIS: I don’t believe that the rash of crimes in the city of Vallejo had a direct correlation with the reduction of officers. That I believe firmly. And why? Because the types of crimes that occurred were sporadic crimes in different areas of the community. They’re not the kind of crimes that police officers, if you had enough, would be preventing anyway. You can’t prevent someone from sporadically shooting somebody.

Police officer Mat Mustard disagrees.

MAT MUSTARD: There’s a direct correlation between the 34% reduction in staff in the police department and what’s happened in relation to crime.

Mustard is president of Vallejo’s police officer union. His union sometimes gets blamed for Vallejo’s financial woes. After all, the police and fire departments account for over 70% of the current budget. But Mustard says his officers made concessions at the start of the bankruptcy. 

MUSTARD: The police officer association went to the table and negotiated a deal in these tough economic times. And the police officers gave up almost 18% percent in salary reductions and benefit reductions. And, so, we’ve taken our haircut. We’re currently working way under our market in relationship to our salary and all we’re looking for is fairness.

MARC GARMAN: You got to look at total cost, not just the money, but wage and the benefits. 

Marc Garman is editor of the online news site Vallejo Independent Bulletin. He usually supports unions, but he says that Vallejo’s union contracts have kept police salaries and benefits higher than those of other cities.

GARMAN: The total cost in Vallejo is about 12% higher than Richmond, for example. 

Garman says Vallejo’s financial woes require everyone to take a cut. But police chief Bob Nichelini has said the officer’s union resisted further pay cuts. Here’s Chief Nichelini speaking last year at a city council meeting:

BOB NICHELINI: You know, we went into this, we met with the labor - the police association - and we said we want to lower our cost, like what was described earlier. And they said, No, no, cut the staff as much as you want, we want to be paid.

With the pensions, the payouts, the current salaries and benefits, the Bulletin’s Marc Garman says the city will have to cut more public safety jobs in order to balance its books.

GARMAN: And believe me, the wages that we see in Vallejo, it’s probably the last stand of these astronomical wages in my opinion, because other cities are on the verge. LA--they say they’ve got something like six months of money left. Vacaville’s feeling the squeeze. Napa’s scratching their heads. San Francisco’s going, my goodness, how are we going to survive?

Mayor Osby is already facing that financial reality. And he says the people of Vallejo need to come together to ensure a safe city.  

OSBY: I’ve always believed and I still believe that policing the community is a community effort. You will never have enough police officers in your community. That is why it’s necessary to have the community step up and be willing to participate to make the community safe.

And in fact, citizens are stepping up in Vallejo.

Omar Martinez heads the county chapter of the Guardian Angels that has lately been patrolling Vallejo’s streets. He bursts in the door of a community meeting at a public library, grabs a microphone, and announces that the Guardian Angels just stopped a crime from happening near the library.

OMAR MARTINEZ: It was a robbery to begin with, but it could have turned into worse. Luckily my guys were here patrolling, which is again, what we do.

The mayor’s office didn’t pull this meeting together—the city has cut not just cops, but other public employees as well, which leaves the citizens to organize themselves.

Stephan Johnson is here with his nine-year-old son Elijah. He says the crime scene in Vallejo has gotten worse lately.

STEPHAN JOHNSON:  My children are quite young so right now we don’t allow them to go out into public places by themselves, or ride their bikes in the streets or anything like that. We’re keeping them within the household.

Johnson and others in attendance are looking for solutions that neighborhood watch groups, churches, and non-profits can accomplish on their own. But what goes unspoken here is the elephant in the room. The question of whether, fundamentally, Vallejo just needs more money, money to put police on the streets. 

JOHNSON: Most definitely, we do.

Vallejo is finding that there’s no such thing as a good backup plan when a city hits rock bottom. How do you keep safe, clean, and healthy when you’re bankrupt? Other Bay Area cities may soon be asking these questions too.

In Vallejo, I’m Adelaide Chen for Crosscurrents.

Adelaide Chen is a student journalist at the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism.

How do you feel about local budget cuts? Is Vallejo doing the right thing? How about your city? Share your opinions by calling us at (415) 264-7106.