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Demoting Vero police officers little help with budget woes

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of April 12, 2012)

A plan in the works to demote nearly 20 percent of Vero’s police officers and put three of them back out on patrol could leave the officers unhappy while not doing very much to solve city budget problems.

Officers will take a major hit to their pocketbooks, but taxpayers will still pay about the same out of theirs, as the cuts represent about $190,000, less than a 3 percent reduction in the $7 million police budget.

Newly sworn-in Chief David Currey has been told to restructure his department to reduce higher-ranking supervisors and to put the maximum number of officers out on patrol.

“It’s nothing anyone wants to do, but the city is trying to save some money,” Currey said. “You don’t like to see anyone lose pay or lose rank. These are people who I have hired and I’ve trained and I’ve worked with.”

Three lieutenants will become sergeants, bumping the sergeants to corporals and corporals to patrol officers.

Each demoted employee will experience an immediate cut in pay Oct. 1 – between $8,000 to $10,000 per person – and possibly a hit to his or her pension upon retirement. Pensions are based on the officer’s best five years of salary at a rate of 3 percent for each year of service.

Further reductions in the budget will be realized from the elimination of the deputy police chief position and the fact that Currey’s salary is nearly $11,000 less than the final salary of former Police Chief Don Dappen. An entry-level police officer will be hired at $36,982 plus benefits instead of filling the second in command post.

Vero Beach resident Paul Teresi has long served in the leadership of the Taxpayers Association of Indian River County and he’s on the team of volunteers who will review the upcoming year’s Vero Beach budget this summer when it is released.

At last week’s board of directors meeting, the association appointed Teresi to speak on its behalf with regard to the police budget controversy. Both as a property owner and as a retired law enforcement officer from the Buffalo, N.Y., area, he disagrees with the planned demotions – especially since they will result in such a small reduction in department expenses.

“Our concern as the taxpayers association is that it needs to be done in a fair manner,” Teresi said. “If they’re promoted based upon scoring the best on the test and based upon longevity, it’s really unfair to demote them because it's punishing them for years of bad decisions made by management.”

The problem is not with a few officers, Teresi said, but with a structure built and maintained by the past two police chiefs which elevated too many officers into supervisory positions, creating a top-heavy department.

“In good times, that works, but in times like this, it doesn’t,” Teresi said.

The problem took years to create, he said, and should not be un-done in one fell swoop of an accountant’s pen. “It should be done through attrition,” he said. “If these officers are eligible to retire, then retire.”

Teresi suggested that, if the city wants to eliminate higher salaried positions going forward, managers cushion the blow by putting the lieutenants back on patrol but keeping their salaries the same for a year or two or even three. That would reduce the budget long-term, but it wouldn’t do much for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

So what should the city do in the meantime?

Look elsewhere, Teresi said, to other departments which don’t protect the life and property of the citizens of the City of Vero Beach. He said the city should delay some capital expenses such as purchases of specialty vehicles, which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Public safety should be one of the very last places to get cut,” Teresi said.

If creative budget reductions could be accomplished, for example, by looking at some services which could be covered by the Indian River Sheriff’s Office, such as the marine unit, those cuts could help without damaging the integrity and sovereignty of the city’s force.

“I think most of the city residents want to retain the police department,” he said.

Currey said he’s looking at every line item of his department’s budget because he knows it’s a huge expenditure for city taxpayers. The amount spent on police protection is nearly double the $4 million collected in property taxes.

“We’re at a point that we’ve got a $7 million budget and nearly $6 million of that is personnel, so there really aren’t a whole lot of other places to cut,” Currey said.

Every pay period, Currey said, supervisors examine any overtime used and must justify why it was paid and why the shift or duty could not be covered some other way.

“The supervisors have been really good at cutting overtime,” he said.

Access to take-home patrol cars has also been limited. Officers who lived up to 35 miles away from the station used to be able to take their cruisers home, but now the maximum distance is 20 miles.

Over the next few months, the city will negotiate the demotions, plus any other cuts to health benefits or changes to the city pension plans, with the Coastal Police Benevolent Association.

After two years of cuts to the police budget, the city’s lieutenants recently unionized, forming a separate collective bargaining unit from the lower-ranking officers. Lieutenants were formerly exempt from union representation as they were considered management.

Budget workshops will take place in July after Property Appraiser David Nolte notifies the government bodies about property values for the coming year and the final budget will be approved by the city council in September.

Police have already begun taking this budget battle to the public. The Coastal Police Benevolent Association has obtained a contact list for the city’s crime watch groups in response to a public records request, and the union has begun communicating about the potential impacts to officers from the demotions.

At least one meeting has been held to inform Vero homeowners about the situation. Officers have been conducting a petition drive designed both to inform area business owners and to garner their support.

Last year, there was a dust-up because a grassroots awareness campaign was conducted by police personnel using city computers and city time.

An e-mail detailing budget cuts was sent out to crime watch members by Public Information Officer John Morrison and information was given to citizens that was not even available to Vero Beach City Council members at the time. Police were accused by numerous public officials of inappropriately conducting political action committee activities on the taxpayer dime. This year, the union is heading up the effort and strict ground rules were laid down.

“I know that the guys are doing the petitions and they know that it needs to be done on their own time,” Currey said.

Should residents feel that police officers are conducting these activities on city time or using city uniforms or vehicles, Currey said he would like to be notified so he can address the matter with the officers.