Police, Fire Departments Face Major Cutbacks In Fort Lauderdale, Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE -- A new round of proposed budget reductions totaling more than $15 million cut to the quick in departments typically held sacred: police and fire.

Chiefs for the fire and police departments will be serving with much less a city that gained 12,500 people through annexation last year. Both chiefs said they tried to protect the core of their operations -- responding to citizens' calls for help. But the latest cuts even dig into that.

"Basically what it boils down to," said Fire Chief Otis Latin, "is this is the quick" that's being cut.

"Yeah, we're concerned," said Police Chief Bruce Roberts, whose budget memo indicates staffing will drop to the level it was when crime rates soared in the mid-1990s. "There's no two ways about it. ... It's something we definitely have to monitor."

Among the proposals to bring the city budget under control are eliminating 42 sworn police positions and turning over fire-rescue dispatching to Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne.

Cuts were made earlier to create the budget in place now. But department heads citywide were given until Monday to strip another $15 million from city operations on top of reductions in employee pay, increased health insurance costs paid by workers, and closure of the city's jail and trash transfer station.

The new cuts will come before the city commission for approval at the end of this month and would be implemented in January and carried through the next budget year as well.

Acting City Manager Alan Silva emphasized the proposals aren't final, and the budgeting process is fluid.

The teetering of the city's finances that knocked City Manager Floyd Johnson out of a job continues to bring surprises. Silva said Tuesday that the city has declared an impasse in negotiations with all three employee unions, whose collective bargaining contracts have expired. The unions are balking at increases in health insurance costs, pay cuts, layoffs, and more work spread over fewer employees.

The police chief, fire chief, finance director and acting city manager all agreed during a Tuesday interview that the city's fragile financial state leaves them no choice but to lay off some employees -- how many remains unknown -- and slash services severely. Officials said they are compelled to take strong action to avoid a downgrading of the city's bond rating, a reflection of financial health that determines how much it costs the city to borrow money. Two bond rating agencies have warned the city of a downgrade if financial problems persist.

"I think people have got to understand," said Silva, "the whole financial world is looking at us, and unless we take drastic measures there will be a decrease in the rating."

Silva, a Democratic activist, volunteered to work for free until April untangling the city's fiscal mess. Meanwhile, a headhunting firm is searching nationwide for a permanent city manager.

Silva also said Tuesday that the dire state of the fire stations and police headquarters might require putting a multimillion-dollar bond issue before voters in March, much earlier than had been planned.

"At the same time we're doing that," he said about cuts in department budgets, "we're still having them live and work in despicable conditions."

In draft documents not yet finalized by staff or approved by the City Commission and obtained by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Tuesday, department heads offered up their budget-cutting proposals.

Parks and recreation programs also will suffer if the suggestions are approved. City festivals will be eliminated if they cost the city anything at all, and public pool hours will be reduced. Cleaning and patrolling of parks and park buildings also will be severely reduced.

Deep personnel cuts will spread the pain across other city departments. In public services, for example, the loss of engineers, a painter, plumber, planner, building inspector, administrative aide and others, if enacted, is expected to delay park and neighborhood improvement projects, keep the city from doing any new development planning and hurt inspections of ongoing construction. Residents may face longer waits for building permits and difficulty getting questions answered by phone.

In his memo, the police chief recommends reducing the police force by a total of 42 sworn positions, shutting down the community policing division, reducing jail booking to the point where officers will take on most of that work and will be off the roads for possibly an hour or two processing each arrest, and shutting down the popular police horse-mounted patrol that had been spared during the first round of cuts.

The police department is hardest hit, with $7.9 million in additional cuts.

"This will return the department to staffing levels only slightly above 1994 levels, when the city earned the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of serious crime in the nation," Roberts wrote.

Latin, the fire chief, had to pare $5.3 million more, even after telling top officials that there was nothing left to cut.

This time he suggests handing fire-rescue dispatching over to Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, a move that would cost 15 dispatchers their jobs. He also proposes eliminating nine manager jobs, and taking out of service a fire engine and ambulance that were stationed at the barrier island when the Cleveland Clinic there closed and residents feared for their health and safety. Twenty-two firefighter employees would be eliminated in that move, and Latin suggests cutting another 16 firefighter or driver-engineer jobs that are vacant.

Latin's draft budget memo shows that unless some money is restored to his budget, he'll have to let 30 part-time ocean rescue employees go and close some beach lifeguard towers.

He also recommends severing mutual aid agreements with other cities "since we don't have enough units to cover our own city let alone bordering jurisdictions," and withdrawing from any parades or public education demonstrations.

"Lastly," Latin wrote in his Nov. 7 draft memo, "I want to again reiterate the fact that any cuts in the operations division greatly increase our response time to emergencies. ... Everything is connected and the entire city is affected no matter what we do in terms of cuts and or reductions."