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Dade City votes to keep police, drop firefighters

The city manager says the town is broke as it approaches a new budget year on Oct. 1.

Published August 13, 2003

DADE CITY - Stuck between a $1.4-million budget shortfall and a rowdy crowd of more than 300 residents, city commissioners on Tuesday argued more than four hours before opting to save the Police Department and dissolve the Fire Department.

Twenty-two people spoke in favor of saving the departments. They included residents, real estate professionals, firefighters, school principals and a police union representative who warned legal action could follow any decision to drop police services.

Several motions failed as commissioners searched for ways to hold off a decision until late Tuesday.

Mayor Scott Black, who said he was sad to have to make a tough decision, also expressed frustration.

"I'm concerned with our inability to make a decision," he said. "This commission has to be able to make difficult decisions."

City Manager Harold Sample said the city is broke heading into the new budget year that begins Oct. 1. The public safety departments make up 55 percent of the $5.5-million operating fund, and Pasco County stands ready to provide both fire and policing for a fee far less than what it would cost the city, he said.

Commissioners agreed unanimously to forge ahead with a plan from police Chief Phil Thompson to save the department through a series of cuts, including layoffs.

But commissioners were deadlocked over what to do with the Fire Department.

With each discussion or move toward dissolving the department, the rowdiest crowd to attend a City Commission meeting in five years shouted and made catcalls from the floor.

"Y'all might be looking for a job later," one man yelled.

At 9:40 p.m., Black said he would make the difficult motion.

Black stepped aside as mayor, passing the gavel to Vice Mayor Bill Dennis, and directed Sample to open negotiations with the county for fire services.

Some members of the crowd booed and shouted, "No."

The measure passed 3-2, with Black and Commissioners Hutch Brock and Eunice Penix voting in favor. Dennis and Commissioner Lowell Harris voted against it.

Commissioners repeatedly asked Sample, who took over the city's helm July 1, if he could find ways for the city to continue operations as usual. Sample said raises the city gave police and fire employees, increases in health and liability insurance, a loss of a contract to provide fire protection to parts of Pasco County and the urgent need to stop using water and sewer service payments combined to make a mess of the budget.

Saving the city's budget meant tough choices, pitting fiscal realities against the desire to have a hometown police and fire department, Sample said.

"I'm your business manager," he said. "I hate to tell you, the emotional question is yours."

Attorney Glen Greenfelder echoed the comments of many in the audience.

"Why would I want to be in a city that has county fire, county police?" he asked. "We might as well unincorporate because we're not going to be a city anymore."

[Last modified August 13, 2003, 08:17:50]

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