Lauderdale, Florida To Ask Voters In Nov. For Tax Hike To Build Police, Fire Stations

FORT LAUDERDALE -- City voters will be asked in November, rather than in March, whether they want to pay more taxes to build about $125 million worth of police and fire stations.

City commissioners agreed unanimously Tuesday that November would provide a better political climate and give the city more time to pitch the case to voters, who have already had an earful about city mismanagement and economic ills.

"I think maybe it'd fall flat right now," said Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

Commissioners said they would consider asking voters two additional questions in November: whether they'd pay more taxes for a $5 million golf course on the synthetically capped Wingate Superfund site in northwest Fort Lauderdale and whether the charter should be revised so that voter approval would be needed before the sale of any public lands.

The $125 million public safety bond is needed to build $33 million in fire stations, to erect a $55 million police headquarters on the current site, and to spend $16 million for purchase of another site to house other departments now at the Police Department, $5 million to manage the projects, $1.5 million for lawyers and underwriting fees, and $4.5 million to clean up the Police Department site's likely environmental issues, according to a memo written by Horace McHugh, assistant to the city manager.

But with little time before March elections and a financial calamity at hand, the city is not in a position to convince voters right now, commissioners agreed.

Action on finances

The somber times the New Year brings to City Hall were evident Tuesday, as employees talked outside the meeting about layoffs that take place this month and commissioners conducted a string of actions related to the financial problems:

Setting up an audit board and naming former County Auditor Norm Thabit to it.

Finalizing details for a code amnesty program in February intended to save police public service aide jobs by offering to reduce code fines by 75 percent if violators will comply and pay up. If $550,000 is raised that month, the jobs will be spared.

Thanking citizens who donated money to save the police mounted patrol.

Spending $32,000 to figure out costs and savings of an early retirement plan so that highly paid employees will leave early and help relieve financial strain.

Where 2003 was marked by debate and approval of budget cuts, the turn of the year brought the actual crumbling of the work force.

A few days ago, the trash transfer station, where bulk trash was taken by the public, closed. This week, layoff letters are expected to go out in several departments. Next week, commissioners will meet with the general employees in a contract impasse final hearing. The jail is closed, and by month's end more city employees will lose their jobs when the city stops fingerprinting and processing prisoners before taking them to the county to be locked up.

Manager takes heat

The reality was taking its toll Tuesday. Vice Mayor Carlton Moore unexpectedly tore into acting City Manager Alan Silva, saying Silva isn't qualified to run the city.

Silva, who is working for free and has experience mostly with the federal government, sat in silence, taking notes. Silva has agreed to take on the city's top administrative duties until a replacement can be found for former City Manager Floyd Johnson, who was forced to resign in part because of the city's financial troubles.

Moore, who said he has had trouble sleeping over the "dismantling" of the city work force, urged his colleagues to speed up the search for a full-time manager.

"It's very devastating to me," said Moore, who thinks Silva's package of cuts is too drastic and unnecessarily causing layoffs and pay cuts.

Employees quitting

The cuts are also causing employees to flee, Moore said. City Engineer Hector Castro said two engineers resigned Tuesday. And the city Community Redevelopment Agency lost its engineer, as well. Assistant City Manager Greg Kisela quit to run Destin in the Florida Panhandle, and his wife, City Clerk Lucy Kisela, is resigning to go with him.

Moore said more employees are also trying to leave.

"I don't see anyone satisfied," Moore said "... I really commend Mr. Silva, but I don't think he has the management ability or experience."

Others on the commission, who support Silva, sat silent during Moore's criticisms. When Moore finished, the commission moved on to other issues. Commissioner Dean Trantalis said later that Silva was a "great interim city manager" who was brought in to "tame the wild tiger."

"The fact that the tiger has scratched a few people in the meantime doesn't mean we haven't gotten the animal under control," Trantalis said.

Silva, after the meeting, said, "It's difficult to manage change, and there's always room for improvement."

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