For three years now California has embraced austerity budgets. As a result, we have record unemployment, a persistent and deep budget deficit, and have been slashing vital public services that will take years to fix, and risk the creation of much deeper social and economic problems. On those merits alone, budget cuts have been proven a failure.
But now we are seeing some of the most dangerous – literally – effects of the austerity mania. Because local governments have been hit by a double-whammy of lost tax revenues thanks to the recession, and state theft of other funds, many cities are having to make huge cuts to services. Closed libraries are bad enough. Laying off police officers is much worse.
But that’s what several California cities are now doing – including cities hard hit by crime. Oakland recently voted to layoff 80 police officers – unless the officers agree to pension cuts. Some might argue the answer is to slash pension benefits, but that’s not a wise recruitment policy for a police force working in one of California’s most dangerous cities. Cutting benefits and wages is likely to make it harder to attract and keep good police officers.
Even if it were accomplished, it’s only a short-term solution. As it looks like we’re entering the Third Depression, local budgets are likely to be under constant pressure for some time to come. Unless police and fire wages are going to be halved, or pensions eliminated, cities will eventually have to turn to layoffs or new taxes.
Some cities have already won concessions from police and fire departments, and found it’s still not enough to close the deficit. Salinas has been facing a gang war for several years now, with dozens of homicides each year. It is a city racked by unemployment and violence, with the gang warfare rightly seen as a major crisis threatening the city’s future.
Despite this crisis, the city faces a deficit, and after making an initial round of deep cuts to city services and getting concessions from workers, Salinas is going to lay off 1/3 of its anti-gang task force:
Plenty of what the Salinas Police Department’s Violence Suppression Unit does goes unnoticed by law-abiding residents – and that’s the way the city’s gang task force prefers it.
But this summer, those residents may notice something unwanted: a rise in the kinds of crimes the unit fights against.
On June 15, police Chief Louis Fetherolf announced that the unit will lose six of its 16 officers to help the city stave off a $12.4 million deficit for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
This is simply insane. Salinas voters were warned this would happen, but they voted to reject a sales tax measure last November anyway, claiming that there was “waste” in city government that meant the deficit could be closed without impacting public safety. There’s an element of race to that argument, as it was mostly Salinas’s white community arguing against the sales tax, with Salinas’s Latino community arguing in favor of it on public safety grounds.
Yet the public safety cuts will happen in Salinas, as they are elsewhere in the state, because some people remain convinced that less government is better for the economy and for the public. Others believe that public workers are to blame for these problems, and that if we reduce them to poverty wages, they’ll somehow keep us safe anyway.
As I’ve argued, most Californians reject this thinking. Most local tax measures did pass on the November 2009 ballot, with Salinas being one of the few (along with Ventura) that did not. But the belief that cuts are good, that doing things on the cheap is somehow doing them better, is just persistent enough to cause the problems that we see in Salinas and Oakland.
Both cities will eventually turn to a new tax to properly fund their operations, and voters will eventually approve it. But it shouldn’t have to come to that. Sacramento needs to reject austerity, reject Hooverism, and find the new revenues that are needed to provide the robust level of public services that are required to produce economic recovery.
UPDATE: Oh, and today the US Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments too, opening the door for a wholesale evisceration of California’s gun control laws.
Less gun control + less police + budget austerity = one long, nasty, violent decade for some of California’s most troubled cities.