SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The top four candidates for mayor offered their visions for bolstering the size of the police force Tuesday as they competed for one of the biggest campaign endorsement prizes, that of the San Diego Police Officers Association.
Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, Councilmen David Alvarez and Kevin Faulconer, and ex-Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher are among 10 seeking to finish the term of Bob Filner, who resigned Aug. 30 after less than nine months on the job.
The hopefuls are also vying for the Probation Officers Association's endorsement for the Nov. 19 special election. Fletcher captured the support of both organizations last year during his unsuccessful bid for mayor.
Tuesday's debate came amid a backdrop of a chronic staffing shortage at the San Diego Police Department. According to the most recent report, the SDPD has 135 fewer sworn officers than called for in the budget. Officers have been leaving to the tune of around 10 a month for several years to nearby law enforcement agencies that offer higher take-home pay.
Fletcher, who released an officer-retention plan Monday, said management of the SDPD by city officials in recent years hasn't been working.
"There have been some Band-Aid efforts recently but that hasn't stopped the bleeding," Fletcher said.
He said a five-year plan developed by the department to address staffing hasn't been implemented.
Alvarez, however, said the city has been putting elements of the plan into effect. However, pay raises recently granted to officers weren't high enough, he said.
"I think it's really simple -- if we pay, you stay," Alvarez said. "It's not a magic plan that anybody can put together. If we pay you the money that makes us competitive with the rest of the cities that are similar in size, you're going to want to stay and serve in our city."
Faulconer said one of the first things he did when he entered the race was to roll out his plan to address officer retention. He added that fixing equipment issues was also critical to keeping officers around.
He said the city was a financial mess when he joined the council, forcing some "very difficult decisions," some of which he knew were unpopular.
"I've been upfront and I tell you what I'm feeling and I back it up with my actions," Faulconer said.
Aguirre said options in dealing with the staffing issues are limited because of the city's pension contribution obligations, which are shrinking the amount of money available for things like road repair and library hours.
The city already dedicates about one-third of its available funding to the SDPD, he said.
"So whatever we do, we have to deal within those confines," Aguirre said. "I know that's not happy news, but the fact is that our pension problem -- that $275 million that we have to pay in our pension payment, that since 2005 has gone up from $161 million -- is basically crippling our ability to come up with more money for our new police officers."
He said city leaders will have to be "innovative" to solve police problems, and he promised to work with the department and POA -- a group that he noted sued him while he was city attorney.
The debate was also sponsored by the Deputy Sheriffs Association of San Diego County and San Diego County Deputy District Attorneys Association.
If no candidate wins more than half the vote in the special election, a runoff between the top two vote-getters would be held early next year.