Fort Lauderdale, Florida To Lay Off 81, Trim $12 Million, Raise Taxes

FORT LAUDERDALE -- In a drastic move signaling a culture change in Fort Lauderdale City Hall, commissioners agreed to purge the payroll and scale back services to the tune of $12 million for this year, $15 million for next, to correct the city's financial ills.

Commissioners also sent signals to property owners that the years of modest tax increases may be over, and they agreed to ask voters in March to tax themselves for a $40 million bond for new fire stations.

"A perfect financial storm swept over us this year," acting City Manager Alan Silva told commissioners in his opening speech.

Silva didn't read the last page of his speech, but it was stapled to the typed packet. It was his resignation. Silva, who is filling in during a search for a permanent city manager, was prepared to quit if commissioners were not "in sync" with him on cutting the budget immediately.

From beginning to end, the meeting was full of surprise and drama.

Police officers and firefighters picketed outside against the layoffs, then packed City Hall. A few firefighters were momentarily stuck in a broken elevator. And the decorum of the meeting was broken in the first seconds Mayor Jim Naugle opened the meeting, when a contingent of police officers marched in and paraded around commissioners' table, as their colleagues clapped loudly.

"Since people only seem to be a number in this city," shouted Fraternal Order of Police Union President Tom Mangifesta, Naugle's high school classmate, "I wanted you to put a face with the number!"

The sergeant at arms, an officer hired to keep the peace at meetings, was kept much busier than usual.

For the next four hours, commissioners struggled and argued over what Silva was asking them to do. Silva said he was told his was an impossible mission, that the bureaucracy would stifle him and the culture would resist change, that "the commission would `blink' as they always had in the past."

But commissioners didn't blink. In the end, with an abrupt, angry decision, they agreed to uphold Silva's recommendations, which call for the city's first layoffs in almost 10 years.

Chief among the cuts is the gutting of the police public service aides, who handle 20 percent of the time spent on calls. Thirty will be laid off.

"I go from being civilian employee of the year to having no job," said Suzan Corey, 35, a public service aide who was told two days ago she will lose her job.

After a formal acceptance of the budget amendments on Dec. 16, the layoffs of 81 city employees can begin. That's on top of the work force reduction from vacancies, another 97.

Residents will see the effects of the new budget in negative terms, city staff has warned: weeds in the medians, nonemergency police calls subject to long delays, fewer police on the street, fewer fire trucks or ambulances in service, dirtier parks, longer waits for development permits, shorter hours to swim in city pools, delays in new projects and in maintenance of buildings.

Though no police officers or firefighters will be laid off, their staffs are dropping through vacancies. In the Police Department, where the jail was already closed for budget reasons, jail booking will be transferred to the Sheriff's Office, community policing will be dismantled and spread through patrol, and the 30 public service aides, who are civilian employees, will lose their jobs. Patrol and investigations will be protected from cuts, Chief Bruce Roberts said, but in the end, the uniformed staff will be down by 30 since last May, when he had full staffing.

The Fire Department will shut down a beach ambulance and fire engine and lose 25 staff through vacancies.

Silva said the $377 million budget commissioners approved in September was a "truly unbalanced budget."

Its assumptions were out of whack; it depended on one-shot fixes, such as transfers from long-term capital improvements funds; it underfunded payroll by $8 million; and it didn't include money for some necessary items, including former City Manager Floyd Johnson's $250,000 severance pay. If $8 million in payroll isn't cut, and another $4 million reallocated, Silva said, "we will run out of money this fiscal year."

He took it a step further, insisting commissioners make cuts that would be permanent and would leave them $15 million lighter for next budget year so the problems won't be repeated.

The entire financial community, department heads, unions, taxpayers, employees and citizens all were watching, he told them.

"To a great extent," he said, "the whole world is watching and waiting to see if history will repeat itself or to see if we have learned from the mistakes of the past."

At any given moment, the meeting appeared headed a different way.

After apparently agreeing to the cuts, Commissioner Carlton Moore suddenly said Silva's $12 million cut was unreachable and that $9 million was more palatable, to save jobs. He said Silva, who is working for free, will be "somewhere in the Bahamas" when his six months are over, but employees have to live with the cuts and layoffs. From the next room, where a spillover crowd was watching on TV, cheers and clapping erupted.

Silva laughed and shook his head. "I mean, it's $12 million," he said. "$9 million doesn't cut it."

Commissioner Dean Trantalis also bucked the idea of cutting millions. He thought the city should put off the cuts by borrowing from another fund and then raising taxes next year. With a $120 increase on a $200,000 homesteaded property, Budget Director Terry Sharp said, the $15 million deficit next year could be erased. He thought commissioners should get feedback from employees first.

Naugle interrupted.

"We were elected to make some tough decisions," Naugle said, "and we need to make them."

With that, Naugle, Hutchinson and Commissioner Christine Teel agreed $12 million needed to be cut from this year's budget. They seemed willing to work with Police Chief Bruce Roberts, who pleaded that his public service aides and jail booking remain intact. But before commissioners could hear the rest of the staff presentation, Moore interjected. As the police chief later put it, the meeting "fell off a cliff."

Moore said if commissioners weren't willing to roll back to $9 million, then he wanted to accept the cuts as is, with no concessions for the Police Department. Teel and Naugle promptly agreed, and the meeting was over.

"This is ridiculous," said an angry Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson, who wanted to find out whether higher-paid park rangers could be laid off and their job function assumed by public service aides, whose jobs could be saved.

Former Commissioner Tim Smith supplied the dramatic ending. The mayoral candidate who lost to Naugle in March was carrying a flier from Naugle's campaign, in which Naugle touted "full police staffing" and "more police resources."

"Excuse me, Mayor," Smith said loudly. "Are you going to take public input?" As Smith continued to rail about the gravity of the topic, Naugle made a final plea.

"Sergeant-at-arms, please!"