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In face of possible cuts, Largo police chief argues to retain staffing

LARGO — Police Chief John Carroll has been meeting privately with each of the seven city commissioners over the past few months. The topic: his budget.

City Manager Mac Craig will release his proposed 2013 budget reductions Friday, and the list of cuts may include a proposal to drop Carroll's force from 137 sworn officers to 134.

Carroll would not have to lay off anyone, but he has three vacancies he would like to fill to bring his force back to 137.

Craig emphasized that his proposed list of trims is not finished yet. Even when it is complete, it will be up to commissioners to decide which cuts to make.

"The budget is a working document," Craig wrote in an email. Largo has cut $12 million in general fund spending since 2008, Craig pointed out, and to reach his goal of cutting $2.8 million for the 2013 budget, all departments will have to find trims.

Carroll said he was told in January to find $500,000 to cut from his department's roughly $20 million budget. He asked Craig if he could meet with commissioners to explain why that was a bad idea.

The bulk of Carroll's budget goes to officer salaries and benefits. He can't cut $500,000, he says, without losing officers. He pointed out that even the proposal to drop three positions only saves about $240,000. With annexations adding property to the city limits, and with plans for a new Walmart on Roosevelt Boulevard that will surely bring more traffic to Largo, Carroll thinks it's a bad time to lose officers.

"Our city population and service demands have not gone down," said Carroll. "I just can't be going backwards in sworn staffing."

Carroll brought to each meeting with a commissioner a chart prepared by his department's management analyst. The chart ranked Pinellas County cities according to number of police officers for every 1,000 people in their service population, according to FBI statistics. In 2009, the last year for which numbers were immediately available, Largo was last in the county, with 1.87 officers per 1,000 people. Kenneth City was the highest, at 3.27. Clearwater had 2.35 officers per 1,000 people.

Carroll's meetings won over a few commissioners, but not all of them. When the budget discussions start this month, Commissioner Curtis Holmes is sure to repeat his mantra: public safety first, everything else (especially the recreation, parks and arts departments) second.

"This was preaching to the choir," Holmes said of his February meeting with Carroll. "I think it's a horrible idea. … We're spending $17 million in borrowed money on a recreation center and cutting police officers? That makes no sense."

Holmes' detractors would point out the Highland Recreation Complex is being paid for through Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenues, while most of the Police Department's budget is paid for with the general fund.

Commissioner Gigi Arntzen was less convinced that Carroll can't find some savings. While the city has trimmed $12 million in general fund spending since 2008, the police department's budget has gone up, from $18.3 million in 2008 to $20.1 million this year. And while sworn officers have actually dropped from 141 in 2008 to 137 this year, Arntzen says she's not getting flooded with complaints that police are taking too long to respond to calls.

"I think we've been very fair to them over the past four years," Arntzen said. "Now we're at a point where everyone is going to have to step up to the plate."

City Manager Craig said his proposed budget cuts will be available Friday on the city's website, largo.com. Holmes and Arntzen, along with the other commissioners, will get to discuss those proposals at their May 8 work session, the first of many discussions before the commission votes on the budget in September. Fiscal 2013 starts in October.

"It's going to be an interesting budget season," Arntzen said.

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

In face of possible cuts, Largo police chief argues to retain staffing 05/01/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 5:22pm]
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