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    Police feel pinch of budget constraints

    Civilian aides are in limbo and traffic tickets may be on the rise as the Police Department struggles to save money and increase its revenue base.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 1, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Police Chief Sid Klein sat in his office recently and typed letters to fire 12 police aides, civilians who help the department write parking tickets, direct traffic and patrol areas such as Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach.

    "In 20 years, I can't ever remember having to do this," Klein said.

    Klein had been cautioning his bosses at City Hall for more than a year that such layoffs might have to be stomached as he struggled to deal with rising costs and tight budgets that have affected all city departments during the past few years.

    The news hadn't gone over well on the beach, where business owners protested the potential loss of the police aides. Then the city's employees union chimed in last week, expressing shock and anger about the pending terminations.

    Finally, the impact of the pending layoffs hit the city manager's office, too. Last week, Klein's boss told him to hold off on the firings. At least for now.

    City Manager Bill Horne said his staff is trying to find a way to keep the aides, at least through the end of the year. The city may even take the unusual step of allowing the Police Department to carry over unused reserves from this year to next year's budget, freeing some extra cash for the police aides.

    "I don't think we fully realized the number of people affected and how quickly it was going to happen," Horne said.

    The conflict illustrates the yearly push and pull of reining in Clearwater's multimillion-dollar city budget, particularly at the Police Department, which spends nearly a third of all the city's general fund operating revenues.

    City commissioners have been adamant about keeping the city's property tax rate level since a hotly debated increase in 1999. Meanwhile, rising employee salaries (based on contracts that the commissioners approved), increasing health insurance costs, expanding services and ambitious redevelopment plans have strained city budgets.

    When the new 2001-2002 fiscal year begins today, Klein and Horne will have spent nearly a year trying to balance the tax dollars available with public safety needs.

    The result is so delicately balanced that Klein will transfer four officers to traffic patrol starting today so that more traffic tickets can be written, raising revenue for the department. The move also is a response to persistent neighborhood complaints about speeding cars.

    This year's budget debate began in the spring, when police officials asked to increase their 2002 budget by $2.3-million to $28.8-million.

    First, the city manager's office axed nearly $1-million from the department's request, lowering it to about $27.9-million.

    Then Horne asked police brass to slice off another $344,000 in "salary savings," which equated to 2 percent of the department's payroll. That's done by cutting positions or leaving jobs open after someone quits. Every city department had to find such savings.

    "Now we're talking real things and real people," said Klein, who said he has never been asked to cut so much in payroll before. "Without question, it's going to have an impact on services."

    But Horne doesn't sound as sure of that.

    "When is enough enough?" Horne said of funding for the Police Department. "I'm trying to get my hands around how much is enough."

    A review by the St. Petersburg Times shows that the department's budget cuts included many minor slices, such as trimming new Internet services some officers wanted.

    But they also included larger pieces chopped from the department's wish list. Among them, city administrators cut about $211,000 in proposed padding to the department's overtime plan, leaving a budget of nearly $1-million for overtime next year.

    As a result, police will have to tightly control their overtime requests, said Deputy Chief Bill Baird. For instance, officers will not stay after hours to finish reports but will have to wait until their next shifts.

    Klein said his department wrestled with the additional $344,000 in estimated salary cuts.

    About 90 percent of the department's budget couldn't be touched, Baird said. That's mainly because under federal rules for grant funding, the department can't reduce its number of sworn officers from 267 until 2003, Baird said.

    As a result, police have scrutinized nearly 20 civilian jobs for possible cuts.

    Klein figured he could achieve roughly half the salary savings by eliminating police aides -- even though sworn police officers would have to take over tasks the police aides did, such as directing traffic at the beach roundabout, which takes away time from other tasks.

    The police aides may be saved, but police aren't certain yet how they will achieve the rest of the cuts. The goal is to save the money by holding vacant jobs open and by "keeping the screws on our expenses," Baird said.

    The future probably brings similar debates.

    For starters, the department prides itself on being technologically advanced. Through millions in grants, the department has stocked police cruisers with laptop computers, which can provide officers with updates on criminal records, warrants, incidents at a particular address and the locations of other recent crimes in an area.

    This year, the department acquired two large vehicles that can act as portable offices, packed with computers, radios, telephones and video surveillance equipment. One is geared to help police investigate traffic homicides. The other is a mobile command bus for a crisis situation, also used to help police hold crime watch meetings in neighborhoods.

    "I don't want to see the department go backwards," Klein said. "In today's world, technology is every bit as important as cars, guns and bulletproof vests."

    But there are costs. For the next budget year, police officials had to depend on a federal grant to pay about $120,000 to fund cellular communications between the police cruisers and headquarters.

    "We were lucky to get a grant," Baird said.

    The department also has to shoulder the costs of paying for 11 police officers during the next two years who were previously paid with federal grant dollars. With the extra officers, the city department has about 2.45 officers per 1,000 residents, slightly fewer than the state average.

    City administrators have already warned Klein that the positions may have to be reduced in 2003 due to budget constraints.

    That has led Klein to start thinking about how to drum up new revenue to help fund some of the positions -- such as traffic enforcement fines. The city also has pumped up its program to create volunteer civilian patrols on Clearwater Beach and Sand Key.

    Another idea is to create a nonprofit police foundation, which could accept donations from the community that the department now has to turn away.

    Said Klein, "It's timely for me to look at creative opportunities in how we're going to fund some things in the future."

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