Courts & Crime

Small town must choose between cops and bankruptcy

In the rough-and-tumble farming town of Huron, residents rely on the police department to keep the peace. But the city could soon face an agonizing choice: Close the department or declare bankruptcy.

This impoverished west-side town of 8,000 is not alone in its struggle to maintain police protection amid high crime and crippling unemployment. But among Fresno County’s towns, Huron’s problems are especially dire.

Last year, 88% of its general-fund budget went to the 16-officer police department — forcing the city to borrow money to pay its bills.

After years of borrowing, the city owes $1.7 million — more than its entire annual general-fund budget. To balance its books, Huron would have to go more than a year without a police department, city council, city manager, or public works and planning departments.

The city’s contract auditor, Bryant Jolley, who reviews budgets for several government agencies, said that in his 30 years on the job he has never seen a city in such poor financial shape as Huron.

“They’re going to have to make significant reductions in order to come clean on this,” he said.

So why not cut the police department? Like other rural towns, Huron cares deeply about keeping its own force, as opposed to contracting with the Fresno County Sheriff's Office for patrols.

Both the city manager and police chief say laying off officers will be a last resort. No City Council members returned The Bee’s calls, but city officials say the council has been unwilling to make major cuts to the Police Department.

Alan Bengyel, who was Huron’s city manager from August 2005 to September 2008, said he couldn’t persuade the City Council to eliminate the police force or raise taxes.

“The decision by the council was no matter what, keep public safety,” Bengyel said.

Bengyel, now the Orange Cove city manager, recently oversaw the reopening of the police department there to great fanfare. He said Huron has no choice but to close its department and contract with the Sheriff’s Office.

But the city wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the Sheriff’s Office for the same level of coverage it now has, which means Huron would have to settle for fewer officers on the streets.

“Huron is a city that has a reputation for violence,” Bengyel said. “Without public safety being very visible and very active, it could be a very bad situation.”

Small-town cops

Huron’s dilemma is reflected in small towns throughout the Central Valley.

Orange Cove can afford a police force in part because of a large insurance settlement it received years ago. Mendota opened a police department in August on a $627,000 budget — about half of what Huron is spending. It remains to be seen whether that shoestring budget will work for Mendota in the long run.

“Can these communities afford to fund a police department at the level of professionalism that a police department needs to be funded at? The answer is no,” said Ron Manfredi, Kerman’s city manager.

He said that even Kerman, a town almost twice as big as Huron, constantly struggles to pay for its police.

In Huron, officials have hoped an increased police presence will attract more businesses, boosting tax revenues. But only a few new businesses have opened in recent years, and the sour economy and west-side water shortages have made things worse.

Last year, six Huron police officers left for jobs with the Orange Cove Police Department along with Police Chief Frank Steenport. Huron hired three new officers and eliminated three jobs, all K-9 positions. That saved money, but not enough.

Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.