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Gainesville police, fire budgeting for growth

Chiefs of city agencies say they need more funding to keep pace

POSTED: April 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Two of the most expensive city-funded departments have asked the Gainesville City Council to consider the effects of city growth when tightening the belt on their departments' budgets.

Though many department heads have been asked to submit smaller budget requests for the City Council to consider in this year's budget meetings, both the police and fire departments requested more money for fiscal year 2009 than they currently use.

Together, the two departments have requested a little more than half of the city's $27.8 million general fund budget, but Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada says the fire department must grow with the city. Fire protection for a bigger city comes with a bigger budget.

"As the city grows, we want to grow responsibly with it," Canada said.

Both Canada and Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper submitted their budget requests to the City Council one week after Gainesville was named the fourth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation.

Both men told the council that Gainesville's growth affects the day-to-day operation of their departments.

In the past year, the average time it takes the fire department to respond to emergency calls has increased from 5.5 minutes to 6.2, Canada told City Council on Thursday. The increase in response time can be blamed on two things: more traffic and more development, Canada said.

Traffic congestion makes it more difficult for the fire engines to move through the city.

New residential developments inside the city limits, such as Sidney on Lanier, and some annexed properties are outside some of the stations' five-mile service areas, according to Canada's budget documents.

Most of the issues with far-reaching developments are alleviated by the city's automatic aid agreement with Hall County Fire Services, but Gainesville will need a new fire station - maybe not this year, but soon - to accommodate growth, Canada said.

A bigger city also means a bigger caseload for the city's police department. Hooper told the council that the city's police investigators are currently averaging about 25 or 30 open cases at a time. Hooper said that though the caseload is heavy, it is adequate -- for now.

"But as we continue to grow that's not going to be the case," Hooper said.

Aside from sheer numbers, a growing Gainesville changes the way the fire department will have to train its firefighters. High-rise buildings that are soon to come in the Midtown district require different firefighting techniques, Canada told the council.

"As growth comes, infrastructure has to come with it, and this is part of it ... this is part of the infrastructure that has to come with it," Canada said later.

Much of Canada's budget request is replacements for old equipment: fire engines, emergency vehicles and for an air compressor that refills firefighters' air tanks with oxygen.

But the fire department has also asked for money to purchase more hazardous weather warning sirens, because there are only two currently in Gainesville's city limits.

These requests, along with others for in-truck mapping systems, three thermal-imaging cameras and replacement vehicles for the fire chief and fire inspector, make up the bulk of the fire department's capital budget.

But Canada also requested money to add two new employees to the department. City Manager Bryan Shuler says costs for labor are much bigger than costs for capital improvements.

Canada's personnel request may be for more than two people if the department is not awarded a grant for 12 new firefighters to staff the ladder truck at Station Four.

Canada told City Council that if he does not get the grant, then he will ask it to grant the funding for the 12 firefighters over a three-year period, because all of his requests are "imperative to the operation of the department on a daily basis."

As it stands, though, the fire department's budget request is about $3.3 million less than what Hooper says the police department needs to get through fiscal year 2009.

Once costs for labor, two replacement police dogs, replacement in-car laptop computers and 10 high-mileage vehicles were totaled, the police department's budget request totals some $8.9 million for fiscal year 2009, even after making some cuts.

Hooper originally asked for two new investigator positions and two unmarked cars for them to use, but those requests did not make it to the budget Hooper submitted to the council Thursday.

"These two positions were going to work peak hours ... and target areas where we've had increases in crime rates, such as entering autos and burglaries..." Hooper said. "They would work sort of like an investigative task force, but target specific crimes that we're having and try to eradicate those."

Hooper said the city's crime rate is down, but burglaries have increased in the past year, and the department needs those investigators to prevent property crimes.

"We're not just coming over here every year asking for two people, because you said we could," Deputy Police Chief Jane Nichols told the council. "We're asking for folks where we legitimately need them, and we felt like we could make a difference with these two more plainclothes folks working those peak hours ... and prevent crime rather than responding to it."

Both departments' budgets, as well as the city's estimates of its funding capabilities, are subject to change over the next two months, Shuler said.

The numbers will be finalized in May, and the public will have a chance to comment on the final product in late May.



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