Walnut Creek has an interesting problem. The city has been encouraging growth of downtown businesses, but our growth is now exceeding the city’s capacity to handle the associated problems. Fights and public drunkenness are the norm on weekend nights. These problems routinely monopolize all police resources and our residents in the outlying areas suffer.
To date, city leaders have chosen to address the problem by slowly limiting new growth, rather than adding staffing in proportion to the new growth. This has caused some new bar owners to feel discriminated against and punished. Now they are speaking out. In late 2010, the City Council voted to extend the operating hours for at least one of these bars (1515 Lounge). Existing bar owners have also started to become the focus of the City Alcohol Task Force, recognizing that the city can not restrict just new establishments.
Often, the police have been the messenger for a problem that is still brewing today. Some bar owners have chosen to blame the messenger, the police, rather than look to the larger perspective. Which is that the bars exceeding our city resources, is but one symptom of a much larger city wide problem. It’s not that the police are an enemy of the bar’s, it’s that based on current staffing, we have to be responsible and sound the alarm. If staffing levels and resources were different, we could adequately handle later closing times and larger crowds.
Although the cities “economic engine” (local businesses) have in many cases been very successful in raising city revenues, this economic engine is not without a “hidden cost.” Retail stores and major shopping hubs generate large amounts of calls for police services for everything from fraud, to dishonest employees involved in complex embezzlement schemes, to career criminals who make a daily living shoplifting from retailers. Local bars also generate a number of calls for service. All these calls require resources and growth in one area of the city, translates to increased demands in other areas; ie: city services. Currently, the police department has fewer officers on staff now, than we did 20 years ago, despite all the changes and growth to the downtown scene. If we had appropriate staffing levels, bars operating until 2 AM would not be such a big issue.
Unfortunately, the tax dollars this “economic engine” created, have been spent elsewhere on a variety of new luxury projects. The cities infrastructure (engine block) has not been maintained and is starting to show signs of wear. One of the components of keeping the engine running smooth, engine oil (ie: Police), has been maintained at a very low level. During a recession, the fuel for this engine has been equally scarce, and therefore the city has not felt they had the ability to add personnel.
However, just like with your car engine, if you fail to adequately maintain all your fluid levels, eventually things will go wrong and the engine will break. We are currently playing the odds on how long we can keep this engine running until something happens, due to a lack of staffing.
We must encourage city leaders to put essential city services like public safety and existing infrastructure ahead of luxury projects. As a service organization, we must staff accordingly for the growth the city has undergone so that we can handle the demands of the entire community and provide the services our residents demand.