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Vero police take biggest hit in new city budget

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 5, 2012)

The proposed City of Vero Beach budget for the coming year trims only 2 percent from the current $20.7 million budget, and shoves more than 40 percent of the meager cuts off onto the police department.

Vero also is proposing to charge property owners the “roll-back” tax rate – a slightly higher rate designed to glean the same amount of taxes from property which is worth less than it was last year.

Neither of these proposals are good enough for Mayor Pilar Turner, who said she expected much more.

“I definitely expected more from this budget, we’re not eliminating any positions,” Turner said.  “The roll-back rate is a tough sell for me.  I’m not going for any more than last year, and I expect it to be lower to force them to cut the budget. We have got to look at cutting personnel.”

Of the $417,000 in proposed cuts, $177,000 would come from the police department. Another $185,000 in savings would come from Human Resources and the City Attorney’s office.

That means all the other city departments combined who are covered by the general fund only reduced their budgets by a total of $55,000 – not exactly the meaningful cuts taxpayers might have expected in difficult economic times.

The 2011 tax rate was roughly $1.94 per $1,000 in non-homestead taxable value. In 2012, that went up to about $2.03 per $1,000 in value. The proposed rate is $2.10 per $1,000 in value or a 3.5 percent increase in the tax rate.

Turner said she has no intention of voting for a budget that ups taxes to the roll-back rate.

Turner said nearly all the positions being eliminated are already open. During the upcoming week of budget workshops, she intends to take department heads through an exercise of zero-based budgeting – starting from scratch and asking managers to justify every employee and every expense. “That’s the goal of what we try to do, but in government no one really seems to get that,” she said.

She said she hoped a close examination of each department would be done under the leadership of City Manager Jim O’Connor prior to the presentation of the budget, but doing it at the budget workshops is better late than never.

Turner acknowledged that the council actively digging down into the detail of the budget this way does so at the risk of being accused of micromanaging. But someone has to push for the cuts, she said, and the buck stops with the elected members of the City Council.

If city staff manages to get three votes for the budget as written, the city will employ 433 people in 2013, or one employee for every 35 men, women and children who reside in the city based upon the 2010 U.S. Census population of 15,200. That number of employees proposed is down from the 456 positions currently held or open within city departments.

The elimination of 23 positions represents a 5 percent reduction in staffing, but only 8.5 of those positions are covered by the general fund. The balance of the jobs being lost are in the water-sewer utility, as well as two jobs in solid waste and one each at the airport and the power plant.

Human Resources is set to cut $87,000 from the elimination of the risk management director position and the consolidation of those two tiny departments into one. The city attorney’s office is not filling the third attorney position, at a savings of $98,000.

Instead of replacing that third attorney, the city is expected to pay more than $1 million in legal fees to transactional attorneys Edwards Wildman over the next two years to navigate the sale of the electric utility to Florida Power and Light. Those fees do not come out of the general fund, but are being tacked onto customers’ electric bills.

The electric utility is budgeted to donate $5.61 million in direct transfers and $1.72 million in administration charges to the general fund in 2013 for a total of $7.33 million, which is down from $7.51 million this year. The decrease means about $185,000 less going into the general fund to pay for City Hall operations.

The water-sewer utility is also an enterprise fund, so it’s not included in the general fund budget, but cuts in that budget are a deep $1.3 million or 11 percent of operating expenses. The water-sewer utility staff is being cut by 10 people as part of a consultants’ plan to make the utility more competitive with the county. Six of those jobs are in the environmental lab. That work is being outsourced to a private company.

Water-sewer customers also donate to the general fund and those contributions are slated to drop from $1.84 million this year to $1.55 million next year. Of that infusion of cash into the general fund, $1 million is in direct transfers and $554,000 is administrative fees paid to support operations at City Hall. This decrease, added to the $185,000 that won’t be coming from the electric utility next year, will mean nearly half a million less flowing into general fund coffers from the two utilities.

Indian River Taxpayers Association board member Paul Teresi, who heads up the group’s Vero Beach Budget Committee, was critical of the cuts to the police department, stating that the city should look elsewhere to reduce staffing and expenses.

“My personal opinion is, if they are eliminating the deputy chief position from law enforcement, why can’t they eliminate deputy chief positions in all the other departments?” Teresi said.

The Vero Beach budget will be publicly vetted for five days beginning Monday at City Hall in council chambers. Budget workshops begin at 9 a.m. daily and the schedule and agendas are available at The police budget, expected to be contentious and to draw the most interest and input from the public, will be considered at 9 a.m. Tuesday.