Lauderdale, Florida Police, Fire Departments To Feel Brunt Of City's Proposed Budget Cuts

FORT LAUDERDALE -- City leaders have debated and decried Fort Lauderdale's precarious financial situation for months, but Wednesday they will face the reality that fixing the problem will mean laying off 75 employees and eliminating another 117 positions.

The brunt of the city's downsizing will be felt by the Police and Fire departments, which will lose at least 105 positions under a budget-cutting plan proposed by acting City Manager Alan Silva.

All other employees face six unpaid days off, or 3 percent pay cuts.

Commissioners, who already have slimmed down the budget, are under intense pressure to approve a new round of cuts totaling $28 million over this budget year and the next to place the city on sounder financial footing.

Adding to that pressure is Silva, who is insisting commissioners approve his plan. If they don't, they will have a new problem -- a search for another interim city manager.

Silva included the threat to quit in his budget memo for Wednesday's meeting, when commissioners will face irate police and fire unions that are waging a publicity campaign against the cuts as a threat to public safety.

Silva's message since commissioners appointed the retired former city manager and federal employee to run the city for six months without salary has been consistent: There's not much room for compromise. Cut the budget now.

"If we don't take this action now," he said recently, "I can guarantee there will be a crisis."

If commissioners don't agree, then "I'm not on the same wavelength, and I have outlived my usefulness, and so I would offer my resignation at that point," he said.

Commissioners forced five-year City Manager Floyd Johnson to quit in September, in part as a message to financial markets that the city is getting its finances in order and should not have its high-quality bond rating reduced.

Police, fire hit hard

But Silva has delivered a controversial menu of cuts. Police and fire, two historically untouchable departments, face the harshest reductions. Silva proposes cutting $4.5 million from the departments this year and $10.6 million next year.

He also wants commissioners to put on the March ballot a bond issue for $80 million to $90 million in police and fire improvements. Commissioners had agreed earlier to postpone it.

"There's going to be a lot of hard decisions that need to be made," Silva said.

Silva looked at the budget submitted by Johnson and approved by commissioners and said it isn't balanced, with some revenues overestimated and some expenditures underestimated.

He wants $16 million cut from the base of next year's budget, with that money reallocated to restore employee raises and replace capital improvements funds.

In addition, Silva went back to fire and police officials last week, telling them their initial plan for cuts was going to take too long. The city needs to start saving right away, he said he told them. That forced more cuts in both departments, effective almost immediately if commissioners approve the proposals.

Change in approach

Police Chief Bruce Roberts' new plan lays off 30 of the 49 public safety aides. In a draft version of his memo to city officials, Roberts wrote that with all the staff cuts, as well as reduction in overtime pay, the department's community policing will be hard hit.

"Instead we will become increasingly incident driven in responding to calls for service," the memo states.

Public safety aides, he said, "currently handle 20 percent of all calls for service."

The Police Department will lose 80 positions, according to the city manager's documents, or 110, according to Roberts'.

Fraternal Order of Police President Tom Mangifesta said the cuts have gone too far in order to build a cash reserve. His union bought newspaper ads and hired a public relations consultant, Rick Riley, to rally opposition to any staffing reductions.

"You don't build a contingency on the backs of city employees," Mangifesta said. "You don't do it. It's morally wrong."

The Fire Department will lose 25 positions and has already been forced to take a fire engine out of service because of staffing shortages.

Division Fire Chief Stephen McInerny said the fire engine, stationed near Sunrise Boulevard at Fort Lauderdale beach, was out of service throughout the Thanksgiving weekend. The plan for next budget year, which starts Oct. 1, is to take it and an ambulance out of service completely. Department officials say it will affect response times.

"In our job, the clock is everything," McInerny said. "How long can you hold your breath? How long can you go without your heart beating?"

Morale problems

McInerny said morale has "bottomed out."

"People are not happy coming to work. It's kind of a vicious cycle. We'll continue to do the best job possible to make sure people are protected. But it's simple math; you take away the units, it has a detrimental effect. It could have the ultimate detrimental effect."

The latest cuts will affect all city departments.

The Office of Professional Standards, created to tackle workplace discrimination and other clashes, will lose its primary investigator, for example.

Parks and recreation will lose 51 jobs, affecting maintenance of public buildings and parks and the hours of community pools.

But Mayor Jim Naugle said the city is simply "right-sizing."

"I support systemic changes in the way we operate our city," Naugle said. "We have to live within our means. We're the wealthiest city in Florida, but we're the highest-taxed city, among the big cities. There needs to be changes."

Staff Writer Shannon O'Boye contributed to this report.

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