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Police funding debated again

When Crystal River resident Timothy Bidwell called police last week to question why drug dealers in his neighborhood hadn't been arrested, he says he got a surprising response.

"He was told by members of the Police Department that if there's any problem with his service, it's because the City Council is not putting enough money or manpower into it," said council member Daryl Oster, who brought the issue before the City Council on Monday night.

Bidwell called nearly every council member last week to discuss the issue, which touches on an election-time topic that has council members and candidates debating whether the Police Department has enough funding.

Last year's budget reduced the city's tax rate by about one-fourth, and the council approved the same rate again this year. Budget cuts and other decisions made by the council last year left the Police Department with four fewer employees.

Tuesday, police Chief Ray Kaminskas said he would prefer to have three officers on duty each shift. But, City Manager Roger Baltz pointed out, that goal would require hiring five more police officers.

Each officer costs the city about $40,000 plus the cost of benefits _ a hefty price tag for Crystal River, Baltz said.

City Council member Ron Kitchen said he hopes to put politics aside and consider why a city employee would blame police response on the council.

"What the citizens of this city do not deserve is excuses," Kitchen said. "They don't want to hear, "Well, you need to talk to the City Council, because we can't protect you because our budget's been cut.' "

Oster said he believes Crystal River already has more police officers than the national average for cities of comparable size. He complained that he occasionally sees two or three patrol cars parked together, with officers talking to one another.

He also pointed out that the Police Department is the city's largest budget item. For the 1997-98 fiscal year, the council approved $1.21-million in spending.

Kitchen said he is wants city fiscal policy discussed at council meetings, not among police officers.

"This is the place for that debate to take place," Kitchen said. "Not out in patrol cars."

Council member Levi Phillips, who voted against the budget and has insisted that it does not provide enough money for the Police Department, said he believes Crystal River is unsafe. On most shifts, only two officers are on duty, he pointed out.

Kitchen said he has asked the police chief whether he has enough resources to run the department, and Kitchen is satisfied with the budget. He believes Phillips and others are trying to scare residents by saying the city is unsafe.

"I live in this city, and I have family in this city, and there is a balance that you have to reach," Kitchen said. "This is nothing but politics and rehashing politics."

Phillips, of course, disagreed.

"I'll tell you, if you feel safe, I'm happy for you," Phillips said. "But I don't feel safe in Crystal River."