Cocoa--Another City FD faces budget Crisis & County Takeover
Cash crisis threatens fire, police services
By Rachael Lee Coleman and R. Norman Moody
COCOA -- The city of Cocoa might need to turn fire protection over to the county to escape a budget crisis.
City leaders are scrambling to cut $32.5 million from next year's budget, including $5 million from the general fund, which pays for operating expenses such as employee wages and pensions.
"We have a city manager that has failed to do his job and balance the budget," said Cocoa Fire Department Lt. Tim Olsen, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2416. "It's not right that the labor force has to pay for the city manager's mistakes. If they want the labor force reduced, they need to reduce the management force in equal numbers. It is the workers that make this city work."
The most contentious of the city's proposed cuts would require $2.3 million in concessions from the International Association of Fire Fighters, Fraternal Order of Police and the Labor International Union of North America. City council members will decide on a proposal Sept. 25 that suggests: eliminating 17 positions, including nine from the fire department, six from the police department and two from other city departments; freezing 11 vacant positions; and eliminating all raises, the sick leave and vacation buyback programs and education reimbursement.
"It's taken us many, many years to get the benefits we've got," said George Hachigian, senior staff representative of Florida State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, the Cocoa Police Department's union. "The membership voted overwhelmingly not to give concessions."
City Manager Ric Holt took the proposal one step further and formally asked Brevard County Fire-Rescue Chief William Farmer in a letter dated Aug. 13 "to prepare a proposal to provide fire and emergency services to the city."
That move could trim $4 million from the city's general fund budget, but Cocoa residents would likely see an increase in taxes to pay for county services, Deputy City Manager Clarence Hulse said.
Farmer, who received the letter Friday, said the county would have to hire additional firefighters to cover the area, which has a population of 16,335. Cocoa's fire department employs 45 firefighters and five administrative personnel.
"We've had hard times in Cocoa before, not as severe as this -- concessions to layoffs is a double hit at the same time," Cocoa Fire Chief Buz Romprey said. "It's devastating to the department and the personnel. Everybody is trying to keep their spirits up. We are passionate because it's our city to protect and serve."
A culmination of debts, pensions and taxes magnified the problems of a city that actually lost population in a state where most others are growing by large percentages.
The entire city budget, which also includes a capital budget and water and sewer funds, must be pared down from last year's $107.5 million to $75 million. The general fund budget must be reduced from $27 million to match the $22.1 million in expected revenues.
"Our current city manager predicted eight years ago that if we didn't raise taxes, fees and kept current with expenses, the city would go bankrupt," Hulse said. "Our revenues have to keep up with expenses. The city of Cocoa had not raised taxes for 13 years."
It broke the no-increase cycle in 2001, raising taxes 10 percent to a rate of $4.46 per $1,000 value in taxable real estate, or $334 a year a home with a taxable value of $75,000. Even another 10 percent raise, the maximum increase allowed by the state, wouldn't come close to making up the shortfall.
State laws mandate that Cocoa make up a more than $1 million shortfall in pension funds for firefighters, police and general employees that resulted from poor performance in financial markets, Hulse said.
The city also must refund $750,000 to the utility system and another $100,000 the state overpaid the city from several years of traffic fines.
Patricia Ross, a resident of Ruth Street in Cocoa, hasn't heard of the proposal until now.
"I'd have to see everything that is involved," she said. "But so far, it doesn't sound so good."