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Shrinking force bothers crime-conscious council

Crime in Tampa has dropped two years in a row, but the City Council remains focused on hiring more police officers.

With constituents constantly complaining to them about crime, council members have told Mayor Sandy Freedman they have not forgotten a promise her administration made last fall to add 30 new employees to the Police Department.

On Thursday, council members also voted to ask for an explanation of why the number of authorized police positions has dropped in recent years.

At Freedman's urging, the City Council last raised the city's property tax rate in 1989 to hire and equip 101 new police officers.

The city hired those officers, but let the number of authorized sworn positions at the Police Department slip a few years later. The number of authorized officers on the Police Department's payroll has dropped from a high of 856 in January 1991 to 802 now.

At the same time, the city's tax rate didn't go back down.

Council members voted Thursday to ask for a report on what happened to the 101 positions added in 1989, as well as on how money from the tax increase has been spent in the ensuing years.

"We're just asking someone to come to us and explain what happened and (explain) what assurances we have that it won't happen in the future," council member Rudy Fernandez said.

The city's property tax rate has remained at 6.539 mills since 1989. A mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property value. At that rate, a resident who owns an $85,000 home and takes the standard $25,000 homestead exemption pays $392.34 in city property taxes.

City finance director Bob Harrell said a response isn't ready, but he did say that some unanticipated trends in Tampa's economy have squeezed the city's finances in ways officials never expected.

At the time of the tax increase, it appeared that property values in Tampa would continue to rise at a considerable pace, Harrell said.

They did not.

Instead, property values in Tampa have remained fairly flat since the late 1980s, even dropping for the first time in two decades during 1991.

In an economy with rising property values, the same tax rate would have brought in more money every year. Officials anticipated that the increased revenues would have covered the costs of the new officers and kept up with inflation.

"When none of that materializes, it adversely affects things across the board," Harrell said.

During the recession, revenues from property taxes lagged well behind projections. The recession also put a dent in other revenue.

As it stands, all the money the city gets from property taxes _ about $59.9-million _ does not cover the Police Department's $64.4-million budget.

City officials use money from other sources, such as fees for services and franchise fees, to cover the difference. Money paid by utility customers for water, sewer service and garbage pickup cannot be used for law enforcement.

Prodded by council members in recent weeks, city officials have outlined plans to add 31 police positions, not all of them police officers.

City officials plan to use $538,000 in contingency funds to hire eight new police officers, one sergeant and seven clerical "community service officers." Six of the community service officers will take desk jobs now held by police officers who will return to street duty.

Freedman's administration also has proposed adding 15 "police service officers" _ a new position created to handle traffic control, minor investigations and other routine duties.

So far, officials haven't said where they will get the $300,000 needed for those 15 positions.

Trends in police staffing

At Mayor Sandy Freedman's urging, the City Council last raised Tampa's property tax rate in 1989 to hire and equip 101 new police officers. Since then, as the city's budget has gotten tighter, the number of sworn police employees _ those certified to carry guns and make arrests _ has dropped. The city's current authorized strength does not include eight new officers and one sergeant that Freedman's staff has said the city would hire this year.

Actual sworn

Authorized employees,

sworn including

positions recruits

January 1987 721 748

January 1988 716 731

January 1989 752 731

January 1990 853 832

January 1991 856 895

January 1992 801 825

January 1993 801 800

Today 802 787

Source: Tampa Police Department personnel bureau