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Vero police, after warning of cuts, seek budget hike

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 14, 2011)
Photo of Vero Beach Police Chief Don Dappen

After raising concerns that the Vero Beach Police Department was preparing to cut 10 patrol officers and eliminate other programs such as the K-9 and marine units, Chief Don Dappen submitted a budget that contains no cuts and proposes a quarter of a million dollars in new spending.

That puts any decision on police spending in the hands of the Vero Beach City Council, which starts looking at the budget next Monday. 

Interim City Manager Monte Falls, in a July 8 memo to the City Council, confirmed that Dappen had been asked to cut $552,000 from the police budget plus impose a five per cent cut for the highest-paid employees.

The department’s  public information officer sent out a blast e-mail June 27 to everyone on the Vero Beach neighborhood crime watch alert list outlining proposed budget cuts, and asking them to protest any effort to force the police department to cut nine or 10 officers from the force.

In addition to the K-9 and marine cuts, the Vero police department told neighborhood watch leaders that cuts also would require elimination of the vice unit.

That e-mail prompted a flood of calls to council members.

Here is the full text of the budget narrative as reported by Morrison in the email to neighborhood watch groups.

"Over the past several years, the department has continued to make operational cuts to the budget in the amount of approximately $250,000.  We have also reduced the number of sworn police officers from 62 down to 56.  This year, the Chief has been told to reduce his budget by $552,000.  This is after the Chief was already prepared to reduce $92,000.00 on his own. 

“The Chief and his staff will also have to take a 5 per cent reduction in pay which will save approximately $45,000.00.  None of these funds will apply towards the $552.000.  Therefore the Chief will have to lay off approximately 9-10 more officers bringing the total to 15-16 officers out of 62 that will be gone.  Last year we cut our civilian workers as far as we possibly could so we cannot reduce those numbers any lower.

"In order to do this, officers will have to be moved from specialized duties to road patrol and answer calls for service.  Those special duties affected are as follows.  The Narcotics Unit will be gone, K-9 Unit will be gone, Traffic Unit will be reduced from 4 to 1, Marine Unit will be gone, D.A.R.E. will be gone and the Community Services Unit which consists of Neighborhood Watch, RAD Kids and RAD Women and all other programs will be gone."

The note concludes with a thank-you from Dappen, relayed by Morrison, to the citizens for their continued support of the Police Department, and a call to civic action.

"If you would like to voice your opinion as an individual or a group please contact Mayor Jay Kramer, or any of our City of Vero Beach Council members. In person discussions, petitions or letters are just a few good methods of communication," Morrison wrote.

Morrison also noted that city budget workshops begin July 18 and urged residents to attend.

Almost immediately, residents began calling City Council members and Vero Beach 32963 trying to get to the bottom of the budget. The police budget was finally placed in Council mailboxes this past Friday afternoon.

Both Councilman Brian Heady and Councilwoman Tracy Carroll said they had been trying to get a copy of the police budget for more than a week, so they could give informed answers to the citizens who have been calling and sending e-mails.

Carroll said what she had been able to decipher about the situation was that each department in the city was charged with cutting the salaries of its highest-paid employees – those earning $70,000 or more annually – by five per cent and then spreading the balance of the needed cuts across the whole department's operations.

Carroll said she was concerned when she received Morrison's e-mail from a citizen and it appeared the police department was suggesting that most of the cuts hit patrol officers.

Whether the e-mail – even if it was authorized by Dappen – constitutes political speech disseminated to the public via a city-owned computer on city time, is unclear.

Falls provided Dappen's budget request, which does not include any cuts, but Falls did not respond to questions about whether the e-mail violated city policies regarding political speech on the clock.

Sheriff Deryl Loar routinely uses county facilities, staff and equipment to fight for his often-contentious budget requests.

Just last week, Loar held a budget presentation at the Sheriff's Office auditorium. When he tells the Board of County Commissioners why he can't cut the budget as he was scheduled to do this week, it will be using a multimedia presentation created by Sheriff's Office employees on the public dime.

But Loar is an elected official and he takes on this cause personally – not using his public information officer to do his bidding.

Does this, or should this, make a difference?

County Commissioner Gary Wheeler, a former Indian River County sheriff and career law enforcement officer, said he thinks Dappen overstepped his bounds.

"It's using scare tactics to motivate people to put pressure on the City Council," Wheeler said.

"I haven't looked at the city budget and I don't know what's factual and not factual, but in my opinion, he was acting as a city-sponsored political action committee that was not registered," he said. "I may have a little different take on it than someone who is not involved in government, but that's just me, I'm looking at it as an observer."

Wheeler said the activities the sheriff traditionally undertake in fighting for his budget are very different.

"The sheriff has every right to do that; he's a political entity and the public elects him. The Police Benevolent Association has every right to do that; they are a registered PAC and it's what they do," Wheeler said.

"But for the chief of police who works under a city manager to do that, he's way over the line. I would call him in and ask for his resignation," Wheeler said. "It's nothing against Don personally, but I think it's way out of line."

Niether Dappen nor Morrison responded to e-mails asking for comment.