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New Vero manager insists on police budget cuts

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 21, 2011)

In his first head-to-head confrontation with staff, Vero Beach’s new city manager seems to be showing himself to be, as advertised, a tough administrator.

Vero Beach Police Chief Don Dappen said Monday he thought he was going to “have a fistfight” with Jim O’Connor about the more than $552,000 in cuts to the police budget, but that the two men talked through it and found some common ground.

O’Connor not only convinced Dappen to work with staff to make the necessary half million dollars in budget cuts to his department, but whatever O’Connor said apparently prompted a mea culpa from the oft-abrasive chief.

“I apologize,” Dappen said. “A simple, little e-mail got blown way out of proportion.”

Dappen assured the City Council he does not play politics and said that he did not go to the media about his budget, that a note was sent only to the 500 homes which the police have a relationship with through involvement in a neighborhood crime watch group.

That didn’t end the controversy about a June 27 e-mail sent by Officer John Morrison.

The e-mail released budget details a full two weeks before they were even available to the City Council and urged residents to come out this week to support keeping the police budget intact.

“I should have reviewed the e-mail before it went out,” Dappen said, though he took full responsibility for the communication. He said he gave Morrison the OK to send it to address the many queries he was getting about potential police budget cuts.

Dappen said he’d known for months he was supposed to cut the budget, but records released to Vero Beach 32963 on July 11 showed the cuts had not yet been made.

After the chat with O’Connor, Dappen and his staff trimmed about $476,000.

Most city departments had to make tough choices with about 22 jobs slated to be cut in the 2011-2012 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Some positions are open and won’t be filled; others will cause the loss of jobs.

Department heads and charter officers also are losing auto allowances to the tune of $30,000. Employees making more than $70,000 are taking a five per cent pay cut, allowing rank-and-file workers to get off the furlough program.

With regard to the police department, Council members said that based upon conversations with O’Connor, he did not want layoffs to hit beat cops.

Though the numbers are still fluid, Dappen said about 50 per cent of his supervisory staff will need to be demoted, causing some to take pay cuts of up to $18,000 per year.

An entry-level officer, with benefits, Dappen estimated, costs the city about $50,000. So by cutting from the top, the hope is that fewer jobs will be lost and patrol coverage will be maintained as those senior officers are put back on the street.