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Gainesville tries to maintain fire, police services despite furloughs
Gainesville firefighter Jay Grizzle checks an air pack Sunday at Gainesville Fire Station No. 1. One firefighter will be furloughed out of each of the department’s three shifts every day until the end of May. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Beginning in January, budget cuts will take their toll on departments directly responsible for public safety in Gainesville.

The new year ushers in the execution of a mandate for the city to furlough police officers and fire fighters one day each month. Other city employees, including police and fire administration, have been taking one furlough day a month since November.

When furloughs were first announced by City Manager Kip Padgett, police officers and firefighters were exempt until January, so the two departments could calculate how to make the cost savings without cutting essential public safety services.

"We wanted to effectuate the furloughs, but do it in such a way that it doesn’t have an effect on the level of service," Padgett said.

As that deadline approaches, outgoing Police Chief Frank Hooper said patrol officers and criminal investigators will lose holiday pay, but will continue to work the same hours as before.

In the past, patrol officers who work 12-hour holiday shifts have received an extra eight hours’ pay for working on a holiday. Until June 30, at least, those officers will be paid on holidays like any other day, Hooper said.

Criminal investigators, who normally have paid holidays off, will not receive pay for holidays.

"If we do that, that won’t affect us with manpower on the street and it will have less impact on their take-home pay also," Hooper said.

The changes amount to the same as the mandate for all city employees: each police employee will lose eight hours of pay each month, Hooper said.

"Financially, it’s a hit for a lot of folks. Losing basically ... eight hours’ pay per month, it has an impact," Hooper said.

But to make the cuts the fire department needs to make, one firefighter will be furloughed out of each of the department’s three shifts every day until the end of May, said Fire Chief Jon Canada.

Firefighter furloughs started in December, ahead of the city’s deadline, in order to keep engine staffing at an appropriate level, Canada said.

"We wanted to go ahead, just to keep from having all the furloughs pushed into one section real tight, because for us to get through as many personnel as we have, to get them into that six-month span, it was going to be pretty tight for us to do that and not affect our staffing," Canada said.

The furlough impacts firefighters’ ability to take vacation days. At least until the department finishes its furloughs, only two people on each shift will be able to take a personal day to keep enough people in the station while others are furloughed, Canada said.

For both departments, the furloughs have been difficult to swallow, and some employees have been doubly impacted by declining government revenues. Both chiefs say they have employees whose spouses work for the county government or one of the school systems, which are also on furloughs.

But even with the difficult financial impact, both chiefs say their employees are still happy to have a job in a time that jobless rates have skyrocketed. Canada said he tries to encourage his employees that the economic recession will not last forever, and one day, furloughs will end.

"I think one of the toughest things a department director, whether it be a fire chief or any other department director, I think one of the toughest things is when you deal with your employees on a level like this," Canada said. "You know that we’ve done everything we can up to this point to not do this, and when it comes to it, it’s tough to say ‘Guys, this is where we are, and this is our next step,’ because you know the impact it’s going to have on them. That’s a tough thing both professionally and personally, but also, I know it’s part of my job."

Both chiefs say they hope that June 30 will be the end of furloughs for the city for the sake of public safety and employee morale.

"We just need to keep them out there and keep them working. We hope this is short in duration," Hooper said.

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