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Pomona Cops Dodge a Bullet

In Pomona, there's not going to be a new sheriff in town — for now. Three weeks after the Pomona Police Department's rank and file gathered at a beer-distribution company on the city's gritty south side and approved a labor contract that further slashed its budget, the Pomona City Council dropped its threat to dissolve the century-old department and contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The successive moves by the Pomona Police Officers Association, which voted 117 to 18 to cut its budget from $45 million to $37 million, and the City Council, which then voted 7 to 0 to drop the Sheriff's Department from consideration, pulled this battered city back from what promised to be a civic war over the fate of the police force.

But last week's celebrating over that vote looks to be short-lived.

With City Manager Linda Lowry saying negotiations for next year's budget will begin early this fall, the prospect of another showdown seems almost certain.

In a series of comments e-mailed to the Weekly, Lowry says the worst of the budgetary bloodletting may be over.

"I do not expect the budget gap next year to escalate like it did over the past two years," Lowry says. "If the city can sustain the labor concessions it gained this year, and continue to resize its operations to fit within a reliable revenue base without reliance on one-time revenues or cost deferrals, additional deep cuts should be avoided."

But that would require both a "reliable revenue base" and unaccustomed discipline from a city long reliant on the same kinds of smoke and mirrors that governments at all levels employ to dress up bad news.

Pomona cops are hardly sanguine.

"It's not the financial crisis," says Mike Neaderbaomer, a police union board member with nearly 20 years on the force. "It is bad management by a City Council that has continually spent more money than it has brought in."

Neaderbaomer points out that the Pomona City Council was raiding its financial reserves even during the so-called "good years" of the chimerical housing bubble, spending more than $11 million in emergency money from 2004 to 2008, leaving the city with less than $2 million in its reserve today against general-fund obligations of almost $80 million.

The pain has been mostly shared across city departments, with one glaring exception: the Los Angeles County Fire Department in Pomona, which has seen its budget rise over the last three years, from $22.7 million to $23.2 million. In contrast, the Pomona Police Department had its budget hacked, from $49.5 million in 2008 to just more than $37 million this year.

That disparity has caused the police to allege that the county fire department, with which Pomona has contracted since the mid-1990s for fire services, has either charmed or intimidated the council into submission — or both.

"When a city council is using terms like 'financial crisis' in order to effect cuts across all departments in the city, except the fire department, then the only rational conclusion can be that the political weight of [the firefighters' union] has brought undue influence," Neaderbaomer says.

But International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1014 President Dave Gillotte has long maintained that the firefighters' union is just doing what the police union is doing — looking out for its own, only with more success.

Neaderbaomer scoffs. "Pomona fire is overstaffed, and the biggest kick in the nuts is that most people don't realize that the county fire department cost more than our own fire department from the first year it was here."

Pomona's eight county fire stations are, in fact, plentiful, enough to serve about 20,000 people per station, whereas East Los Angeles is protected by three county fire stations that each serve more than 40,000 residents. Hacienda Heights has one county station for 53,000 people.

In Pomona, the county fire stations receive an average of four calls each in any given 24-hour period, a relatively low demand for service that has the cops' hackles up, considering their own steep budget cuts. By comparison, Compton's four fire stations receive more than seven calls for service during the same period, and Pasadena's eight stations work more than five calls per station.

As the city faces fresh negotiations in a matter of weeks, its vague talk of cutting its way further out of the financial crisis is looking to some Pomona City Hall critics like a plan to let 911 calls go unanswered. Just where the bottom is, or what it looks like, is a big unknown.

Mark Cromer can be reached at mrcromer@aol.com.