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St. Petersburg City Council covers rising police costs, no questions asked

ST. PETERSBURG — Even as property tax revenues have plummeted and the city shed 300 positions in the past five years, the St. Petersburg Police Department has avoided reducing its sworn officer ranks.

It's an unwavering commitment to law enforcement in a time when other departments have to cut back — a decision by Mayor Bill Foster that has gone unchallenged by the City Council.

At their Nov. 21 meeting, council members approved $2.5 million to cover an overrun in the 2011 police budget, which ended Sept. 30. Yet the explanations for the overrun were so vague that council members said they weren't exactly sure what they approved.

If the City Council had asked, there might have been a public discussion about the fact that St. Petersburg may be facing years of hard decisions when it comes to paying for its police force.

Foster and his staff explained that $1 million of police cost overruns was for "special pay." Some council members said they didn't know what that meant.

"I put that in the back of my cranium," said Bill Dudley. "Shoot. I don't recollect right now. I really don't. I'm not going to b.s. you."

"I'm going to have to look back and see what they meant," said Steve Kornell. "I don't know right now."

"Special pay? That's a category I'm not familiar with," said Karl Nurse.

Special pay, it turns out, was what the department paid to cover retirements and officers leaving, which included payments for benefits and accrued holiday pay, said police Chief Chuck Harmon.

To be sure, 2011 was a busy one for the police. Three officers were shot and killed at the beginning of the year, incidents that required investigations and complex police operations. It was also the first full year in which overtime costs caused by moving bar closing time to 3 a.m. were absorbed.

But Harmon said that's not the reason why his department overshot its $86 million budget.

He blamed two factors. One was just a series of bad bets on car expenses. In 2010, the city forecast the price per gallon of unleaded gasoline at $2.69, about 16 cents less than what it was fetching at the time. Turns out, gasoline averaged $3.30 per gallon in 2011, causing a $458,471 overrun. Harmon also estimated that vehicle repairs would drop.

"I was hoping and praying we would have fewer accidents," Harmon said.

To no avail. Vehicle repairs exceeded the budget by $418,016.

The other, more significant factor was $1.1 million in special pay — unanticipated salary and retirement expenses — and $352,000 in "other compensation," which is federal taxes on the cost of leave payments.

The rub is that the department typically has budget overruns like this every year, Harmon said. What changed in 2011, and what taxpayers might be dealing with into the future, is rising personnel costs.

The department used to save money by holding positions open for a few months and then hiring younger, cheaper officers to replace departing veterans who cost more. From 2006 to 20010, the department saw an average of $1.5 million in such savings, which offset the overruns.

But in 2011, those savings vanished.

"The problem now is no one's leaving," Harmon said.

He blames the dismal economy. St. Petersburg used to struggle to keep officers from taking better paying jobs as deputies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. But in this era of government cutbacks, St. Petersburg's officers have fewer places to go.

In 2007, for example, the city had so much turnover, it hired 86 officers. In 2011, it hired just 20.

"We have no empty positions that would allow us to offset these costs," Harmon said.

Unlike the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the city has not cut any officer positions. Since taking office in 2010, Mayor Bill Foster has kept the force at full strength. He authorized the city to fund 545 officers. The city now has 530 officers and 14 cadets about to hit the streets.

So the larger budget problem, Harmon said, isn't unanticipated costs or keeping the officer ranks at full strength. It's that the "salary savings" that evaporated may not return anytime soon.

The Police Department came in $1.4 million under budget in 2009. It was $500,00 under budget in 2010. Then it went $2.5 million over budget this year.

If things don't change — if the economy stays stagnant, the force remains at full strength, fewer officers leave, and no new revenue is found — then the problem may just get worse.

One stop-gap could have officers filling roles normally handled by civilians.

"Either we're going to have to change our business model," Harmon said, "or start having the sworn officers do our administrative work, which isn't very popular."

The deaths of three officers earlier this year actually played a bigger role in driving police overtime than extended bar hours downtown, which the city says has taxed police resources since closing time was pushed back to 3 a.m. in 2010.

The department went $375,000 over budget in investigative overtime to pay detectives to work both police shootings. The city covered most of that by cutting back on patrol overtime, so only $93,000 is reflected in the budget overrun.

Harmon said the department is dedicating more overtime to downtown but making up for that by cutting back on overtime spent patrolling other areas.

"We're not sacrificing someone's safety," Harmon said. "But if someone was involved in an investigation, we may not finish that investigation until the next day."

St. Petersburg City Council covers rising police costs, no questions asked 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 11:37pm]
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