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August 05, 2007
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Budget crunch hurts Ft. Lauderdale police hires

By Diana Moskovitz
The Miami Herald 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Flor. While Broward's biggest city has been growing, the police department hasn't.

Since 2000, Fort Lauderdale has added about 33,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census, a combination of older neighborhoods being annexed and newcomers moving into the city.

But the number of police officers hasn't kept up. And city commissioners say that's unlikely to change because the city doesn't have the money to hire more cops.

It's a common scenario in the nation's older cities as cops perform their own version of suburban flight, leaving urban areas for suburbs that offer higher pay and less work.

And Fort Lauderdale neighborhood leaders seem to be split on the issue. Some say they want more cops, but others are more concerned with their property-tax bills.

Experts say there's no magic formula to determine how many officers a community needs. Numbers such as the number of calls for service each officer handles per year or response times can help determine such decisions, but the issue ultimately comes down to whether the community is satisfied with police services.

"If they are satisfied, great," said Maki Haberfeld, professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "But if not, no matter how the police chief feels, there is a problem."

In recent years, Fort Lauderdale has added towering condominiums and annexed several areas, including Melrose Park and a collection of neighborhoods dubbed Riverland.

But despite a fast-growing tax base, the city also was coming back from a budget crisis. In 2004, the city dealt with a $15 million budget shortfall. Cuts were made across the board, including the police department.

In 2000, Fort Lauderdale had 462 sworn officers on staff, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The number has fluctuated since then, but in 2006, the city force was at 478, FDLE said.

The city's budget for the coming year includes 498 officers, plus another 12 whose positions are frozen. But the police union says the city will have trouble filling all of the openings.

The union, which is negotiating a new contract this year, says the problem comes down to money. The union says the city's wages and benefits for experienced officers have fallen behind what other nearby cities offer, so new recruits only take the place of those who have left.

'TRAINING GROUND'

"You become a training ground," said Sgt. Mike Tucker, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police.

Excluding retirements and firings, six people resigned in 2003, according to records obtained by the union. By June 29 of this year, 20 had left the same way. Many leave to get higher pay and a more reasonable workload in other cities, the union says.

The union said Fort Lauderdale spent $1.28 million on overtime between May 2006 and April 2007 to meet the city's required minimum number of officers on patrol. That doesn't include overtime for other reasons, such as hurricanes or court testimony.

City Hall staff wouldn't discuss the situation because of the contract negotiations. But a majority of city commissioners said the city can't afford to give the police department a lot more money at a time when the state Legislature has mandated property-tax cuts.

OTHER PRIORITIES

"There are other demands," Mayor Jim Naugle said. "We have activities in our parks to give kids something to do, so they won't commit crimes. The person who has a heart attack and wants a paramedic to show up in time. It's a challenge, balancing things."

Commissioner Carlton Moore said he is comfortable with what the city is paying officers. "We never said if you worked for Fort Lauderdale you would be at the top of the pay scale," Moore said.

But the changes are being noticed in neighborhoods like Lake Ridge, civic association president Rixon C. Rafter said.

Before the city's money woes, the neighborhood was part of a community policing effort that included an officer assigned just to their neighborhood for tackling problems like absentee landlords and illegal drugs, Rafter said.

The extra help is gone, Rafter said, and the old problems are creeping back. People in the neighborhood have stopped calling the police for minor complaints, such as drug sales and prostitution because officers take too long to respond, Rafter said.

Charles Love, president of the Lauderdale Isles neighborhood association, has similar concerns. In his neighborhood, which was part of the Riverland annexation, residents want to see more officers on the street.

"We're interested in patrolling. Coming through at three in the afternoon doesn't prevent crime," Love said. "They need to come through at 2 a.m., in the morning, when people are stealing boats in the area. And they aren't."

Love added: "When they come through here it's when they having nothing else to do."

But other residents don't want to fork over more in taxes.

Crime hasn't gone up or down much in the Edgewood neighborhood, civic association president Cliff Iacino said. But residents are struggling with rising windstorm insurance premiums, property taxes and other costs of owning a home.

"I would say the perception at this level, at my level, is these officers their pay and pension and benefits packages is somewhat bloated," Iacino said.

Fort Lauderdale officers can retire on 67.8 percent of pay after 20 years, and other cities offer even more. Such pension plans have become an enormous expense for many cities.

Fort Lauderdale's scenario isn't shocking to those who study police departments.

There are more job openings for police officers and fewer people who want to fill them. The trend is noticeable in South Florida, where suburbs have incorporated, started their own departments and offered hefty salaries to fill their ranks quickly.

For instance, when Miami Gardens started its department, the city offered fat signing packages to lure officers, including a former Fort Lauderdale lieutenant who became a major in the new city.

BIDDING WAR

This leads to a bidding war for cops, especially the good ones.

"Where I live in New Jersey, the police are paid as much as the NYPD. All they do is sit around and watch the skies," criminal justice professor Haberfeld said.

In the end, city commissioners and their constituents have to decide how much policing they can afford.

"The community has to understand," said David Klinger, associate professor of crime and criminal justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, "they get the law enforcement agency they are willing to pay for."

Copyright 2007 The Miami Herald

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