Visalia keeps Measure T funds on track

City of Visalia Administration building from across E. Oak Ave.(Kenny Goodman)

City council recertifies vital tax measure for Visalia’s police, fire agencies as departments face ongoing staffing challenges

VISALIA – With the recertification of Measure T, Visalia’s police and fire departments are still on track towards receiving essential funding, even as the agencies navigate ongoing recruitment issues.

Visalia City Council recertified Measure T at its meeting on June 17. The measure, which is a voter-approved one-quarter cent sales tax increase passed in 2004, funds police and fire departments through a small sales tax.

The revenue from Measure T is split 60% to the police and 40% to the fire department. It is a 20-year tax that requires recertification every year. Since its inception, the tax has paid to hire 23 police officers and equipped them, hired 13 firefighters, purchased a new fire truck and a ladder truck, and funded the construction of two fire stations and the training center.

Despite these monumental accomplishments, the 20-year plan called for a specific number of police and fire positions, which have not been filled. In part, the shortages have been caused by slower-than-expected revenues, according to Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian. He said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette that the initial plan had over-estimated how much revenue would come in and that the tax rate was set too low in the first place.

“Overall, Measure T has been a success,” Poochigian said. “It has put more police officers and more firefighters in our city to protect and serve our community. We were one of the first cities around to do something like this and I think we learned from some of the mistakes, and that’s why Measure N ended up coming into place later on.”

Measure N was enacted in 2011 and adds a half-cent sales tax that provides funding for public safety and a small contribution to roads and parks. Poochigian said that Measure N has been more stable than Measure T over its lifetime. While the tax plans have been successful, they have not been enough to keep up with the growth of Visalia, according to officials with both the police and fire departments.

“Law enforcement nationwide is facing challenges with recruitment and retention,” Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said in an emailed statement to The Sun-Gazette. “Measure T and Measure N have been critical for the Visalia Police Department in providing the staffing we need and keeping pace with a growing city. We currently have 19 police officer vacancies, including nine candidates in various stages of the hiring process. Most of our vacancies are the result of retirements and new positions that were part of the Measure N plan.”

The Measure T plan calls for the hiring of 28 police officers but was amended in 2011 to reduce that number to 23 police officers. Similarly, the number of firefighters the plan calls for was reduced from 18 to 13 as revenues have been below estimates. The city’s finance department recommended to the city council that these lower expectations be continued despite a significant spike in sales tax revenue in recent years because the measure will need to contribute toward the new public safety building that is being designed.

Visalia Fire Chief Dan Griswold said that retirements have outpaced hiring over the years, but staffing is in better shape than what the police department is experiencing.

“Recruitment and retention has been challenging,” Griswald said. “It’s industry-wide across the state, it’s always a topic of conversation at conferences. It’s a nationwide issue. We have been able to fill our vacancies with enough qualified candidates, but it’s not like we have people lining up at the door to become a firefighter like it was 15 or 20 years ago.”

Among the most critical positions the department struggles to fill are dispatch positions which are essential to providing rapid response to emergencies for police and fire crews.

Griswald added that Measure T has been vital to maintaining funding for public safety, particularly in terms of equipment including the two new vehicles Measure T funded.

“Any fire apparatus in the fire station are critical pieces of infrastructure, they are very expensive, but they are used 24/7,” Griswald said. “Our people take very good care of them. When you look at a sales tax measure providing those assets to a community, these are truly assets that are important to a community. These sales tax measures have helped us purchase those long-life assets to serve the community.”

Griswald added that one of the ways the tax measures have helped public safety is by allowing the department to stay up with current technology that helps provide better safety for the community and protects firefighters as they do their jobs.

Measure T will complete its 20-year plan in the next fiscal year. Staff recommended to the city council to reauthorize Measure T. The city website shows that polling of residents indicates that Visalians are supportive of sales tax increases when those funds go toward public safety enhancement.

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