Freeze hiring and tax and spend the rainy day fund may be the formula for Sarasota to resolve its budget deficit this year.
But long-term, the city has to think about taking “bold decisions” and educating the public about the financial options, said City Commissioner Shannon Snyder at a Tuesday budget workshop at .
That may include eliminating the .
The city is facing a $4 million general fund deficit for fiscal year 2013, but held a workshop Tuesday to give staff direction on how to close the gap.
“I don't think we can afford to run our own police department anymore,” Snyder said. “I think that cost alone, we could probably contract and eliminate duplication of services at administration level. … I think that's a big, bold move. That's $7 million.”
It’s not unheard of in Florida. Bonita Springs is contracting the Lee County Sheriff’s Office for patrol.
No proposals of how Sarasota’s policing services could be contracted have been discussed, but here’s how it’s playing out in another state:
In some jurisdictions in Maryland, in small and mid-size towns and cities, the county or municipality contracts Maryland State Police to be a “resident trooper” acting as a patrol officer in lieu of hiring a sheriff’s deputy or maintaining its own force, though some are switching back as the costs of such programs are argued.
Sometimes a sheriff’s deputy is contracted to patrol a town and in other cases, the sheriff’s office is reduced to its constitutional duties of serving warrants and maintaining the jail and replaced with a countywide police force that also serves towns, with the county divided into districts. Somerset, New Jersey, is considering doing just that where municipalities there could save as much as $18 million, NJ.com reports.
How Sarasota might propose to handle police services remains to be seen.
Chris Lyons, the city’s finance director, said long-term budget planning to resolve deficits means addressing various issues, and some cannot be predicted such as cuts passed on by state legislators.
Tallahassee legislators say “they don't care — raise millage, that's what's millage is for. … Some of them are doing it to make themselves look good,” Lyons said.
Here’s what the city is facing in the future, The Herald-Tribune reported:
"Sarasota — and its taxpayers — must deal with $329 million in unfunded obligations to retirees for pensions and medical care, budget documents show.
"The city is also slowly paying back more than $144 million in loans and bonds for various projects, including $46 million borrowed for the new police headquarters.
"Those obligations, coupled with the erosion of property values and in turn declining tax revenues, are draining the city's general fund.
"Services such as street sweeping and trash pickup have already been pared in recent years, and last year the city picked up new costs for parks, leaving commissioners to look next to cutting staff."
Hiring Freeze, Furlough Are Options
The commission could vote on a four-month hiring freeze as soon as March 5. Approvals for hires during that period would have to be approved by the city commission under the terms agreed upon at the workshop.
Permanent cuts are up in the air, but Lyons and Lewis recommend against it.
“Everywhere I go within this organization in this four weeks, people are maxed out, people are tired,” said Lewis, the former interim county administrator. “I just came from an organization where it was ripe for mistakes to occur.”
A five-day furlough could also be considered to save $515,000, Lyons said.
The city police were still on the chopping block when it came to the take-home patrol car benefit.
Snyder is interested in revising the benefit, after Interim City Manager Terry Lewis, a former police chief, explained that the benefit is used as a recruiting tool for police agencies, but a modified plan could be set.
“New hires would only get it if they lived in the city,” Lewis offered as one example. Other possibilities include establishing a radius of taking home the car according to residency or all employees must live in the city to take home a patrol car. A plan could be implemented Oct. 1 — the start of the new fiscal year.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she didn’t like limiting the benefit to officers who only lived in the city.
“A lot of people can't afford to live in the city,” Atwell said.
A Sarasota officer makes at least $38,042 without experience, but if certified and completes a field training program, they could make $47,179.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo also opposed the revision saying “why would you need police cars, if you dont have a police department."
Atwell and Caragiulo entertained the idea of raising millage rates to a rollback rate of 4 percent to come up with $600,000. The current rate is 3.3 percent.
Snyder would rather not increase taxes dramatically and quickly.
"I guarantee if we announce today we'll raise taxes, we'll have a packed house tomorrow, hold it over at Van Wezel and sit behind bulletproof glass," he said.
Atwell pushed for the tax increase as part of a balanced approach of cuts, taxes and spending the city’s $500,000 general reserve fund to balance the budget.
“We need to use the rainy day fund,” Atwell said. “It's pouring here.”
This version corrects a quote by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo about police cars.