ST. PETERSBURG — The police chief blames rising crime on the plummeting economy.
But the blame doesn't end there: The shaky economy is also why the police department will have to battle more crime with fewer resources.
The agency had to cut 2 percent, or $1.8 million, from its $86 million budget this year. Next year's proposed reduction is even deeper: The department is preparing to cut 5 percent, or $3.9 million.
And in case the city's financial projections grow even more dire, preparations are being made for more drastic cuts of 7 and 10 percent.
"I think the budget reductions are going to make it more difficult for us to do our jobs," said police Chief Chuck Harmon.
Police statistics show a 7 percent rise in overall reported crime in the city in the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2008.
To meet this year's budget reduction, the department cut almost $400,000 in fuel costs, nearly $600,000 in salaried positions and more than $800,000 in overtime.
The staff reductions came from the elimination of 15 full-time and five part-time administrative and support positions, many of which were vacant. But five employees, including three police cadets, were let go.
Next fiscal year's proposed cuts include $1.2 million in overtime and nearly $400,000 in operating expenses.
Under that scenario, the department will only bring in 10 cadets, cutting 20 positions. An undetermined number of support jobs could also be lost.
Still, the news isn't all bad. Despite the cuts, the chief expects to field the most officers in city history.
The force's authorized strength is 540 sworn officers. But federal grant and stimulus money will allow the department to hire as many as 545 officers — or more, if the mayor allows the money to be spent.
There are currently 531 officers on the job and 19 cadets waiting to take their state tests and join the force.
Getting to 545 shouldn't be hard thanks to a welcome byproduct of the economy: Fewer veterans are leaving for bigger agencies. But for those who do leave, plenty of cadets are waiting to fill their spots.
"If the consequence of the economy is we're at full strength," Harmon said, "that's a good thing."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.