Council Delays Police Cuts, Awaits Preliminary Budget
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - The City Council deferred action during their May 21st meeting on the Clearwater Police Department (CPD) efficiency recommendations of Matrix Consulting, whose recently-completed study suggested several changes that would amount to $1.3-million annual savings.
"We don't ever want to jeopardize safety, but I've got to see everything that we're dealing with in our budgetary process and weigh all of it holistically, rather than just dealing with the Police Department tonight," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.
What the Council will be dealing with is a potential budget shortfall of a magnitude never before seen. They had just been informed by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser of the 2009 estimated taxable values of Clearwater's properties, and the numbers were not good. The tax rolls will fall an estimated 11.7-percent, from $10.16-billion to $8.97-billion, this despite increases in new construction and annexations totaling nearly $200-million.
Using last year's 4.7254 millage rate, the city's 2009/10 ad valorem tax revenue would drop $5.6-million. That coupled with an increase of $6.4-million in the city's contribution to its employee pension plan brings Clearwater's budget-balancing target to $12-million, and that's before contractually-required increases in employee compensation and a host of other operating expenses that always seem to go up, never down.
During last Thursday's Council meeting, Police Chief Sid Klein defended his operation from each of the three major cuts suggested by Matrix. While Klein agreed that changing to 8-hour shifts from the current mix of 10 and 8 hour shifts could save a significant amount of money, $564,980 annually by his calculation, those savings would limit his scheduling flexibility and incur additional overtime.
CPD's 10-hour shifts are also used as a retention and recruitment tool. "The 10-hour shift, I have to share with you, is very, very popular with our officers right now. It gives the officers the opportunity to have 3 days off, and in this business you look forward to that very much," said Klein.
Realism played into Klein's defense of his downtown bicycle patrol and Beach Walk patrol. Matrix suggested reducing the downtown bike unit from 7 to 4 officers, saving an estimated $220,279 annually. The unit has accomplished a lot covering 2 shifts a day, Klein said, "Going to 4 [officers], we can't do it. To eliminate it or reduce it is not realistic."
Duggan Cooley, President of the East Gateway Business and Neighbors Association, asked the Council to continue its support of the downtown bike team. "The neighborhood is unsafe and unfit for business development, it's unfit for families and it's unfit for children," he said of the level of crime in the area. Cooley claimed that the bike team is making an impact, and is keeping crime issues from spilling over in to adjacent neighborhoods.
Elimination of the Beach Walk Community Policing Team, suggested by Matrix as a $311,679 annual savings, would also be unrealistic if the Council wanted to maintain the tourist destination's perception of safety, Klein said.
Beach property owner Scott Suarez agreed, calling Beach Walk an "atomic engine for the city of Clearwater." "To cut anything as far as law enforcement on the beach is ridiculous," he said, recommending an across the board pay cut as a way to achieve savings.
Asked how he would respond to a directive to simply cut $1-million from his budget, Klein responded, "If that was the direction I got, I would do it." Klein added that he would rather make the decisions on where to cut and said that a $1-million reduction would eliminate Community Policing.
"That scares people. That scares me," said Councilmember George Cretekos of Klein's suggested elimination of Community Policing, "Aren't there some other tweaks we can make?" Klein responded, "All I have is people, and if we're going to cut, we want to maintain our core mission."
Klein's response did not consider that his budget also includes equipment, and that equipment inventory includes about 150 patrol cars that are assigned to individual police officers as take-home vehicles.
CPD's take-home vehicle policy was scrutinized by the city's 2007 Budget Task Force, whose member Charlie Rutz suggested that the take-home vehicle policy should be eliminated, reducing the fleet by 45 cruisers and saving $75,000 annually in insurance and repairs, and $1.3-million in future acquisition costs. With an assumed 5-year replacement cycle for police cruisers, about $250-thousand per year could be shaved from CPD's vehicle purchases.
The Matrix study did not include examining CPD's take-home vehicle policy according to City Auditor Robin Gomez; "We looked at that the previous year and the Council had discussion… They [Matrix] would have charged us more money to look at something we had already looked at," he said.
In 2008, the Council decided to keep the take-home vehicle program, but required 29-cents per mile reimbursement from officers for commute miles exceeding 15 miles each way. Gomez at that time estimated that the reimbursement would amount to about $81,000 annually, versus the cost to the city of all take-home vehicle miles of $340,000 annually.
The Council will await City Manager Bill Horne's preliminary budget before making any decisions, realizing that those decisions will be difficult.
"We're going to get to a point where we're going to be talking about rec centers versus a police officer, or library hours versus rescue units for the fire department. Those are the decisions that we are going to be having," observed Mayor Frank Hibbard, "The question is, do you want more officers in North Greenwood, or do you want the library open?"
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