CHICO — As Chico leadership stalls on decisions about dedicating resources to homelessness, staff have not completed a cost analysis of what is already spent on law enforcement and medical services for those living unsheltered during COVID-19.
The Chico City Council continues to consider a proposal by staff called the Homeless Opportunities Plan, which proposes multiple solutions for addressing homelessness, totaling nearly $2 million if all are approved.
However, moving forward on the proposal’s redraft for a final decision on the issue was pushed out by another two weeks in the regular meeting Oct. 6, and the council will not hear the new “Quality of Life” plan until Tuesday. In the meantime, staff has not been able to provide actual costs to the city already taking place to address homelessness.
In the Sept. 22 special meeting on the Homeless Opportunities Plan, Safe Space Winter Shelter’s Deanna Schwab said the private costs to treat homeless patients at Enloe have “more than doubled in four years,” with a conservative minimum estimate of $15 million annually. Schwab said in reality the total cost could easily approach double that estimate, “with all factors in consideration.”
When Schwab asked City Manager Mark Orme if staff will put together estimates of the city’s cost for policing calls involving the homeless, let alone the costs for Butte County Jail when a homeless person is held in custody, she was told “Possibly.”
Later asked about the validity of Schwab’s estimates, Homeless Solutions Coordinator Suzi Kochems said she is not able to verify costs as they must be provided by staff.
“City staff respect the wishes and direction provided by council and if council determines that the best course of action is to increase time for the Target Team’s response, city staff will conduct an analysis of cost,” she said. “Until direction is provided by council, city staff will focus on our daily priorities which are quite demanding.”
Costs to medical providers
When a person is homeless and seeks emergency medical attention, it has a fiscal impact on the emergency responders used as well as the service provider, such as Enloe Medical Center.
Public information officer Joe Page said Schwab’s $15 million estimate did come from an Enloe physician. Based on the category system for tracking shortfall and other costs, it may cost Enloe at least $8 million and likely over $15 million annually to treat homeless patients who fit into all three categories of costs (lack of insurance or use of Medi-Cal, under total charity care or bad debt), according to a 2019 community benefit report from the hospital. Homeless individuals may meet one or more of these categories if they are unable to pay a medical bill.
However, Page said it is difficult to find specifics for costs to the hospital, since like the police department, he claims “we do not track the data on if a person is homeless or not with the three categories.”
Costs using police
So what does it also cost the city to send a fully outfitted and trained officer to a standard call involving a homeless individual?
There is no concrete answer currently made public, although some pieces can be tracked down in the city’s budget online. Chico Police Department’s Chief Matt Madden said he is unable to provide more specific information on cost estimates as he said the department does not track calls based on if a person is unhoused — only the Target Team assigned to these types of calls is a trackable cost.
According to the city’s Director of Human Resources, Jamie Cannon, officers typically responding to these types of calls involving the homeless are considered Special Operations, earning about an additional 10% over the base rate of pay — currently set at $37.77 per hour for a senior or top officer, according to Chico Police Officers Association salary tables.
To calculate a rough estimate of the average hourly cost to the city to use an officer for a standard call taking between 30 to 60 minutes, Cannon said the officer’s hourly rate of pay plus fringe benefits can be calculated. A top Target Team officer makes about $41.54 per hour, then Cannon estimates fringe benefits add up to about 65% of fringe pay — an additional $27 per hour. In total, this officer’s services would total $68.54 in one hour as a “super rough estimate,” Cannon said.
Lieutenant Brian Miller said the Target Team consists of Sgt. Cesar Sandoval, two patrol officers and a community service officer (a department employee who is non-sworn). All officers are veteran and considered senior-class, so will be paid the highest rate offered. That means if the Target Team uses Sgt. Sandoval on a call, his rate of hourly pay is $54.80, then with fringe benefits at 65% comes to an additional $36 an hour — making the total cost to use his services $92 an hour.
However, Miller added Sandoval is bilingual and makes an extra 5% of his pay rate for that certification, bringing the real total for using his services to around $97 per hour.
These estimates leave out an important piece — the cost of equipment used on standard calls. And according to Miller, that concrete number is not known to anyone in the department.
Depending on the types of calls being responded to, Cannon said a real estimate of costs to the city to send police officers to calls involving the homeless depends on the costs of equipment being used and if the officer is on foot or using a vehicle at the time of the call. Mike Flores of the city’s finances department added if a vehicle is used, fuel costs and other charges under Public Works’ purview must also be considered.
Miller said the Target Team uses four vehicles and generally wears the same outfit and equipment as other officers, but costs for their use and for basic outfitting of a new officer changes over time as replacement gear is needed. Each officer has a $900 annual uniform allowance to cover replacements, which Miller added can vary from boots and body cams to bullets and belts, but no initial estimate of outfitting one standard officer is provided by the city, he said.
All estimates are rough and should be considered with the caveat that day-to-day operations vary widely, and other costs would have to be determined by the city’s Human Resources and payroll staff, Miller said.
While the Target Team has carved its officers out of the regular patrol team, Miller said “Patrol loses four people, but what Target is doing is going to reduce calls for service, and so is still a benefit.”
The council will hear if staff can provide new estimates at the upcoming meeting Tuesday and consider all options for using resources to address the issue costing police and private service providers to respond to.
“The city will be bringing forth the accountability side of the Homeless Solutions Plan at the next council meeting and that will outline the action steps required to provide sheltering options for persons experiencing homelessness and the public health and safety clean up efforts,” Kochems said.