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Gainesville police hit hard by budget cuts

Chief: Officers' pay falling behind other departments

POSTED: April 26, 2009 12:15 a.m.

Budget cuts can only go so deep before they draw blood from Gainesville’s Police Department.

Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper, facing a cut in city funding for the first time in years, has warned council members that the department’s pay scale is falling behind other law enforcement and could cause the department to lose some of its longtime employees.

Though Hooper said the city’s police officers understand the city’s current financial situation and are "happy to have a job," he said the department would need to make up for the stalled pay when the economy bounces back.

"We know times are tough. We’re not expecting anything this year or until the economy turns around," Hooper said.

"But when the economy does start to turn, we need to get some of these things caught up quickly."

The police department’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2010 is not much different than the department’s current budget, which was cut by 5 percent midyear to make up for revenue shortfalls.

The department has eight fewer employees after cutting its school crossing guard program and may eliminate providing some free security.

The department often provides security for various events, such as 5K races, but may soon only do so for council-sanctioned events and charge other organizations a fee to do so. Hooper said the fees could pay for some of the overtime costs the department incurs.

"We have a very lean budget, and I don’t know where else we could cut," Hooper told the council Thursday.

Employee raises were cut months ago, something Deputy Chief Jane Nichols said would not be acceptable for much longer. Nichols said the raises are tied to employee retention.

"We’re not asking for a raise for ourselves," Nichols said of herself and Hooper. "We’re asking for a raise for the people who are out on the street."

Employee raises have been frozen citywide, with no set date to be reinstated. They are not included in the preliminary 2010 budget.

The raises allow the department to remain a competitive employer in a field that has a shallow applicant pool, Hooper said. Right now, retention rates are good, Hooper said, because departments in other areas are not hiring.

"If they’ve (other departments) got vacancies, they’re holding onto them to offset a budget crunch," Hooper said. "The job market will become competitive again. We’ve got to be ready and make sure that when that does happen, we react to it to make sure we stay competitive to hold on to the people we’ve got.

But the officers also are missing more than a bigger paycheck.

In a normal year, Hooper would replace marked and
unmarked patrol vehicles. This fiscal year, Hooper cut the unmarked car replacement from the budget and has requested that the council provide funding to replace six marked vehicles.

The department is also halting a program to add computer terminals in patrol cars, which Hooper said he hopes to replace through grant funding.

"He’s got to cut his budget back," City Manager Kip Padgett said.

Hooper warned council members that money used to subsidize departments such as the solid waste division of Public Works or other agencies takes away from public safety funding.

"That’s a dollar out of the general fund that could be used for police or fire services to subsidize something else," Hooper said.

Councilman Danny Dunagan told Hooper he hoped to restore raises to the department’s employees later in the year.

"Chief, I’m optimistic that six months into this budget we’ll be able to come back and do some of the things y’all want to do," he said.

Council members have expressed support for the department, and said the city’s public safety functions come first in a trying economy.

"We’ve got to provide safety and security," Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick said. "That comes first."


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