FORT LAUDERDALE
Budget cuts hit police, firefighters hard
The sting of Fort Lauderdale's budget is becoming more painful as residents begin to see a reduction in safety services on the street and employees fear they are in line for pink slips.
BY SONJI JACOBS
sajacobs@herald.com

In Fort Lauderdale, there are no easy answers to bank-account blues, but there's plenty of blame going around, as layoffs get closer and services diminish.

Several dozen firefighters and police officers along with a handful of residents met Monday at the Beach Community Center on Galt Mile to hear Fire Chief Otis Latin Sr.'s grim plan for reducing overtime expenses.

Latin must trim administrative staff, cut the number of emergency personnel on some vehicles and potentially reduce the number of engines at Station No. 13 on the city's barrier island. Latin said he also may have to close one or more of the city's 15 lifeguard towers along the beach.

UP IN ARMS

It's a proposal that has some residents and fire-rescue workers up in arms and city administrators on the defensive.

''I think our budget cuts have to come somewhere else, and not from the safety of our residents,'' said Bob Rozema, president of the Galt Mile Community Association.

Latin, caught between angry employees and taxpayers, and this year's tight budget, felt he had no choice. Last year, Latin's department racked up $1.9 million in overtime expenses; this year, he is under strict orders from Acting City Manager Alan Silva to hold that number to $956,000.

''I'm only given a certain amount of dollars,'' Latin said. ''I have to provide to you the best service I can within a certain amount of money.'' The fire chief said the cuts would have an impact on service, but some firefighters went further.

''I'm telling you, if they cut trucks out, your life is in danger,'' said firefighter Gary Miller. Like all city employees, Miller's raise was put on ice and he could face a 3 percent salary cut.

Last week, the commission approved a recommendation that all managers and non-union employees take six unpaid days off before Sept. 30, 2004.

''We'll take a pay cut, we'll take furlough days, but we don't want to cut any services in the city of Fort Lauderdale,'' Miller said.

SPECIAL MEETING

City commissioners will gather Dec. 3 for a special meeting on the 2003-04 budget. Silva on Monday stood firm by his decision to trim spending at City Hall, placing much of the blame for the city's current financial mess on former City Manager Floyd Johnson and his administration. Johnson resigned under pressure from the commission in October with a $308,875 severance package.

Throughout the summer, Johnson said his goal was not to lay off any employees. Silva, on the other hand, said pink slips are inevitable. Silva said it's likely no fire rescue department employees will lose their jobs, but he expects 12 police department employees to be laid off.

In addition, Silva is not filling 42 vacant police officer positions and 38 vacant fire fighter jobs, meaning the overall number of safety workers in the city will decline significantly.

Silva said he will also fire city managers who aren't responsible and accountable for their budgets. ''If you overspend, you're gone,'' Silva said. He said he would be prepared to resign on Dec. 3 if the commission did not approve a fiscally responsible budget.

The acting city manager also said he planned to recommend higher taxes in the city in the future. Several employees chastised the commission for forcing the city to operate under such a tight budget because of their refusal to increase property taxes. In September, the commission approved a property tax rate of $5.20 per $1,000 of assessed value, a decrease of seven cents from last year. But because of rising property values in the city, the average homeowner will pay $12 more.

Commissioner Christine Teel, who voted against a tax increase for the 2003-04 fiscal year, said she had no confidence that former City Manager Johnson would spend the money wisely. Now, she said she may reconsider that decision in the future.

Said Teel: ``I myself will be glad to raise taxes if I know the money is being spent where it should be spent.''