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A tough cut for budget ax
Police and firefighter unions have a lot of political muscle. But tax cuts will test them.
By BILL VARIAN
Published June 17, 2007
From the governor on down, politicians have promised that property tax cuts won't come at the expense of police and firefighters.
The reason: Public safety is widely considered government's main responsibility, and police and fire unions consequently hold great power.
"They're essential services, of course, " said Fred Karl, a former state legislator, Hillsborough County administrator and one-time candidate for governor. "But probably the stronger reason is their political strength. They're organized and they are politically potent."
That strength is about to be tested.
Property tax reform approved by state legislators last week will force local governments to cut spending next year as much as 9 percent, meaning police and fire will come under greater scrutiny than in recent years.
"With police and fire being half of the general fund budget, it is not possible to make $22 million in cuts without affecting those two departments, " said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, estimating how much she will have to trim next year's city budget. "However, we will make every effort to minimize cuts to those two areas.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker estimates the statewide rollback of tax rates will cost his city up to $14-million next year. As in Tampa, police and fire protection consume more than half of his city's operating budget.
Baker hopes to spare both departments but says all city employees may receive smaller pay raises this year.
"It's going to be a priority of mine to do everything I can to make the adjustment without reducing uniform strength, " Baker said.
"My personal belief is that public safety is the No. 1 job of the city."
That sentiment is widely echoed by public officials and taxpayers who think police and fire services are the most basic function of government.
As hundreds of firefighters descended on the capitol last week, Gov. Charlie Crist told them not to worry about losing their jobs.
"I've got your back, " he said.
But public safety is not the only reason why politicians emphasize the need to protect police and firefighters.
Their union endorsements are heavily courted by Republican and Democratic political candidates alike.
"They've worked the process very well in Tallahassee since the Republicans took control, " said former state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Palm Harbor. "I don't think the majority of legislators even think of them as unions."
Each year, political candidates rake in money from developers, lawyers and other business interests. Police and firefighters also send checks, but they offer much more.
"Developers give you huge sums of money, " said former Hillsborough County commissioner and Tampa City Council member Jan Platt. "What the unions do is give you leg power."
Firefighters are particularly active in local races.
With their staggered shifts - typically 24 hours on the clock, 48 hours off - many will spend off days knocking on doors during political campaigns. They appear with candidates at public events. They run phone banks.
Across Florida, they've been rewarded with sharply increasing wages and benefits, including pensions of nearly 90 percent of their working wage.
The average Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Department employee, for example, makes more than $100, 000 a year in pay and benefits.
"In the city elections, I would say in many cases the fire union especially pretty much elects the city councilman, " said Fred Marquis, who retired as Pinellas County administrator in 2000 after 31 years.
"The smaller the community, the more powerful the unions tend to be."
But police and fire unions also hold sway in the public arena, as evidenced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Karl recalled that in his 1964 gubernatorial run it was Haydon Burns who enjoyed the support of police and fire unions, and it was Burns who won the job.
"It starts from the fact that they have a legitimate subject to talk about, " Karl said. "People want police protection. They want firefighters to come when there's a fire.