Police Cutbacks in Largo Create Public Safety Crisis
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - The crafting of the city budget, directed from the top of the administration, has created a crisis of public safety in Largo.
This is not scare talk, but is an assessment drawn from the cold, hard facts of the budget that the Police Department apparently is going to be forced to live with in fiscal year 2010 that begins October 1.
The situation is such that Chief Lester Aradi protested in an e-mail the city manager, Mac Craig.
At the City Commission reviews of departments and their respective budgets, Aradi reported that his outfit has been short of officers for years and expressed concern about "diminished officer safety."
This leads Aradi to his strong stand that "I cannot, in good conscience, agree to further staffing reductions of furloughs that remove more officers from the streets of our community."
Largo, like every other entity, is experiencing severe economic strain. The budget is taking a beating and one of the schemes dreamed up by the budget makers is to break the contracts with the police union and city employees union.
This would be done by granting the 4 percent raise called for in the contracts but taking the money away by enforcing shorter hours and making departments furlough employees - including police officers.
Most observers see this as illegal, a violation of the dictum against the impairment of contracts. Others think it can, indeed, be done. The hiring agency has some leverage because it can just decree layoffs so the police and other city workers could succumb to the less severe cutbacks.
One point in favor of Aradi's view is that the city has been steadily annexing areas while cutting the number of officers. That kind of procedure has obvious results.
In 2006, Largo had 143 police officers. There was one less the following year and the number dropped to 140 in 2008. Now there are 137. In three years that is a 4 percent reduction in the force, while the jurisdictional area has grown.
Under the city's scheme to furlough some officers, the net effect, as far as can be determined, would be to reduce the department by three officers - to 134, which would be a 6 percent reduction.
Looking at the figures it would be hard to fault Aradi in all of this. As he reported at the budget hearings, his department is returning $1.3 million, which is 6 percent of his budget.
Apparently the city's view is that all departments have to share cutbacks equally which, in the eyes of many, is absurd. There is a bottom line difference in service between say, a cop and someone handing out books at the library.
So, in his way, Aradi is saying, "enough already."
What adds to the problem and leaves many observers wondering what kind of thinking top city administrators are using is that there is a ton of money in the city's reserves that could be dipped into.
"Do these people know anything about government?" one former elected official said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of ostracism in the small town atmosphere in Largo.
"The chief responsibilities of the city should be public safety - police and fire - water, sewer, trash pickup. Yet we have a city whose budget is giving Parks and Recreation 18 percent more money than the police get. It makes no sense."
Largo is heavy weighted indeed on the fluff side. The emphasis is on entertainment for the citizens and obviously not public safety.
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