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Vero comparing its city services to other Florida cities

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of March 22, 2012)
Photo: Police Chief David Curry (R)

Try cutting either the Vero Beach Police Department or the recreation department budgets and people are going to get mad, speak at council meetings and maybe even protest.

It’s the city’s own “guns or butter” dilemma every year – reduce public safety spending or cut the money needed to provide leisure services and facilities for the benefit of residents and tourist. Over the past four budget cycles, Vero Beach has had to do both.

The police force has been scaled back by roughly 13 percent from 95 to 82 employees and recreation has been whittled at every corner.

Despite staff reductions, the ratio of employees to residents has been widely criticized as out of line with reality. Vero Beach taxpayers and utility ratepayers spend $7 million annually on the police department and $3 million on recreation. Combined, those two departments alone cost two and a half times the $4 million Vero collects each year in property taxes.

Anticipating a $3.7 million drop in annual revenues after the sale of the electric utility, the City Council last week embarked upon a benchmarking effort designed to compare city services to other Florida cities of comparable size, population and character.

Mayor Pilar Turner said the study puts the quality of Vero services in a positive light. “We have many things to be proud of,” she said.

That doesn’t mean that departmTurner said the benchmarking process is a follow-up to the establishment of annual employee reviews, and the current council’s wish to apply “quantitative, measurable performance standards” both to individual employees and to each department.

“I think it has started the talk not only in this building but in other areas where the city carries out functions: How do we do more with less and maintain the level of service that we’re striving to maintain – how do we make that happen?” City Manager Jim O’Connor said last week.

Police and recreation were two of the three departments analyzed in the study’ first phase. The third department was public works, which handles garbage collection plus maintenance of all city parks, roads, buildings and grounds.  These services cost $4.7 million annually, but are less controversial than police and recreation spending.

Recreation is always a bone of contention for two reasons. First, it’s considered a non-essential service by those who don’t use the programs and facilities.  And second, nearly 80 percent of the people who attend events, enroll in recreation programs and use the pool and tennis courts, parks and amenities like the Royal Palm Point fountain do not live within Vero Beach city limits. Recreation programs were once combined with the county, but the two split some years ago.

The city and the county now run parallel efforts.

Police protection is always under a microscope for a couple of reasons. The first is the growing Tea Party, anti-public-employee and anti-union sentiment that is prevalent in politically conservative communities like Vero Beach.  Police also are represented by a strong union and are seen to have generous salaries and benefit packages.

Police careers tend to be quite long, so officers often retire with pensions approaching or exceeding six figures and walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in banked sick and vacation time.

Police are also under scrutiny because the idea is constantly being floated that a countywide law enforcement agency under the umbrella of the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office would be more efficient.

Whether city taxpayers want to keep a sovereign police force and pay for it is a hot issue that will most likely bubble up repeatedly over the next decade.

Vero Beach, which has a population of 17,855 and spans 11.44 square miles, was compared to Cocoa Beach, Dania Beach, Maitland, New Smyrna Beach, Marco Island, Punta Gorda, Safety Harbor and Stuart in the benchmark survey Those communities have populations of 12,000 to 29,000 and spend between $1.2 million to $10.5 million on their police departments each year.

Vero Beach has 2.9 uniformed police officers for every 1,000 residents of the city, making its total force of officers budgeted at 52. Of those 52, nine officers are not considered to be road or patrol officers but are administrative or supervisory personnel.

Having one supervisor for every five officers is one ratio O’Connor has identified as being slightly out of line, he is trying to correct it in the coming year’s budget.

Police officers are promoted by rank and with the rank comes a supervisory status. They receive salaries commensurate with that rank. Plans are underway to demote several higher-ranking officers, to streamline the hierarchy at the department, reduce the budget and get more patrol officers on the road.

The Coastal Police Benevolent Association, which represents police, has already begun laying the groundwork to fight such a move and has indicated it will take the budget battle directly to residents.

Citizens in general are bullish about their hometown police, except for the fact officers issue too many parking and traffic tickets – more than 5,100 per year. The department's performance was not in question at last week’s meeting, as Vero fares well in comparison to most of the other cities.

Last year, Vero police responded to 48,000 calls for service, made 1,297 arrests and had an average response time of 4.4 minutes, which Chief David Curry said includes non-emergency calls and would be much shorter if only the response time for emergency calls was tabulated. He said police also respond to medical calls in the city to back up Indian River County Fire Rescue.

“We respond to everything here in the city,” Curry said. “If someone falls and needs help up, we respond. If a citizen calls us, we respond.”

Over the past 10 years, the Vero Beach Recreation Department has gone from 63 employees to 28 employees.  Seventeen of those are full time and 11 part time. Nearly half the staff consists of lifeguards for Jaycee Beach and Humiston Beach, which serve a combined 700,000 beachgoers each year.

The department budget for the year ending Sept. 30 is just more than $3 million, but only $2.5 million of that is paid out of the city’s general fund. The balance is made up in user fees and revenues from park and facility rentals. The city hosts roughly 80 community events in its buildings and parks throughout the year – a 235 percent increase over five years ago. Fees for city facilities have been adjusted upward to better reflect the cost in recreation staff time required to set up for, support, coordinate and clean up after those events.

“We do a lot of great things for the city, and compared to the other cities, we’re doing a whole lot more than they are,” said recreation Director Rob Slezak, who added recreation greatly contributes to the exemplary quality of live in Vero Beach.