Vero's idea of cutting budget: Slashing Christmas tree lighting
Forced by the impending Vero electric sale to Florida Power and Light to finally impose realistic staffing levels citywide, Vero Beach managers appear to be making a vote for those cuts at next week’s budget workshops as politically painful as possible for the City Council.
On the chopping block are 43 positions that would cut back animal control, lifeguards, the 911 dispatch center, the drive-through utility payment window and Christmas – not the holiday itself, but the long-held tradition of lighting a community Christmas tree at Royal Palm Pointe.
The proposed budget, released last Friday afternoon, reflects a 7.2 percent reduction, as compared to the marching orders handed down by City Manager Jim O’Connor to slash expenses by 10.9 percent in anticipation of the city not being able to skim off more than $7 million annually from the electric utility after an anticipated closing of the FPL deal.
The subsidy provided by high electric rates has, over the past three decades, enabled Vero Beach to fund a ratio of roughly one city worker for every 35 residents – an unparalleled situation which has seen Vero shell out $15 million each year in salaries for the city’s 430 employees.
By comparison, the city only collects $4.1 million in property taxes. The budget, as it stands, does not contemplate any increase in the city’s low tax rate of $2.03 per $1,000 of taxable value.
“As proposed, this budget represents council’s direction to provide a balanced budget while reducing city positions and improving efficiency in operations,” O’Connor reported to his bosses.
The most curious part of the budget is not the numbers themselves, but the city’s seeming inability to accept that – considering the long-standing practice of overstaffing – taxpayers want Vero to provide the services they have come to expect despite having fewer bodies to do the work.
Local businesses large and small have had to cut staffing since the economy tanked in 2008, but unlike the Vero Beach city staff, they didn’t send their customers an “impact statement” listing what functions they would be eliminating because they don’t have enough people.
The 19 pages of impact statements present all the things the City Council will need to answer for politically if they force the proposed budget cuts on the city staff.
This is the section of the budget packet where it’s revealed that residents won’t be able to gather ‘round the ceremonial Christmas tree, and that they’ll need to call a private trapper to get rid of that pesky opossum or wait for state wildlife officials to remove that errant python from their property.
It’s also the section that lays out reduced hours of protection at city beaches, and that the drive-up window many ratepayers use to pay utility and trash bills will be permanently closed.
It states that the city’s 911 calls will in the future be dispatched by the Sheriff’s Office and the police department will lock its doors at 5 p.m. – but allow residents to pick up a phone on the outside wall to reach round-the-clock staff inside the police headquarters.
In reading the lists of services workers will be freeing themselves of, it’s tough to determine what they will do after the budget cuts are imposed.
City Attorney Wayne Coment, for example, has proposed a cut of $55,000 to his department’s current $460,000 budget and a staff reduction from four to three people.
However, Coment says the city’s remaining attorneys will no longer be able to research, file or litigate cases, defend the city against lawsuits, handle appeals of cases, enforce debt collection, oversee outside attorneys working for the city, proof municipal code supplements or complete what he describes as the “Pending and Threatened Litigation Report required by the city’s auditors.”
The city’s two attorneys also will end their open door policy, thereby requiring council members, the city manager or department heads to make an appointment to get a question answered.
“It is hoped the elimination/transfer of identified legal services would be sufficient to allow us to maintain delivery of the remaining core legal services in a relatively timely manner,” Coment wrote in his impact statement. He did not provide any estimate of the cost to contract out the services his department no longer intends to provide.
Reducing lifeguard protection at city beaches has probably been the most publicly contentious item, with the Vero Beach economy so dependent upon tourism and beaches being the major draw. So does it make sense to save $25,000 by all-but eliminating lifeguards during the months snowbirds are here and reducing hours of protection the rest of the year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.?
“The public really does appreciate the guards,” said Recreation Director Rob Slezak. “They are professionals and ambassadors of the city. Not only are they looking out for peoples’ lives, they are looking out for the best interest of the city. We appreciate them, but these are tough times. We are doing the best we can to go from here.”
Also in the recreation budget cuts would be a hit to Little League for $30,000 in utility bills
“The bottom line is, we are hoping the public continues participating in what we do,” Slezak said, adding that corporate sponsors could keep the tree lighting and other events going via sponsorships.
Staff writer Eileen Kelley contributed to this report.