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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013 4 years ago

OUR VIEW: The high cost of police


You know the cliche: A picture is worth 1,000 words.

In this case, it’s two pictures — the pie chart (click here) and table (click here).

As of Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Sarasota City Commission resumed its budget discussions, commissioners faced a projected $2.54 million budget shortfall for the upcoming 2013-2014 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

That is, the city’s projected general-fund expenses of $58,557,554 were $2.54 million higher than the city’s projected revenues.

So the challenge for commissioners is eliminating that gap.

The choices are many — some more painful than others. And as of the start of this week’s budget talks, city commissioners had expressed a desire for “a balanced approach” — a combination of cutting expenses, tapping the city’s contingency, rainy-day funds and raising taxes.

That’s the politically prudent approach: Do just what is necessary and make the fewest number of taxpayers angry. Or, put another way: Avoid the difficult choices that would inject dramatic and necessary change. In other words, Politics 101: government in the margins.

But if commissioners really had courage, they would address the city’s primary expense problem: the extraordinary cost of the city’s police department.

Kudos to City Manager Tom Barwin and Finance Director John Lege. In a 49-page booklet loaded with explanatory, comparative graphics, Barwin and Lege have given taxpayers an explicit, revealing, easy-to-understand picture of the city budget.

The good news is it shows an improving economy. Property values are rising, good news for government spenders. Sarasota’s taxable values will increase 4.6% over the previous year, producing an increase of $741,515 in additional property-tax revenue (that is, if the commission holds the millage rate at 2.9249 mills).
Here’s more good news for the city, but not for motorists. The city expects a 91% increase in revenues from red-light camera traffic violations — from $1 million to $1.93 million (See box above). You can bet city officials will want to install more of them; what a cash cow.

For the most part, though, the city’s fiscal situation is not a happy story. And that is best illustrated by the pie chart above.

The Sarasota Police Department and the extraordinary weight of police pension benefits are consuming 50% of the city’s general-fund revenues.

In the next fiscal year, the city’s police pension costs are expected to increase $3 million alone. (Firefighter and general-employee pension costs are rising $810,000.)

And just for comparison, that $3 million increase in police pension costs is what the city spends on parks and landscape maintenance for an entire year.

More comparisons: Law enforcement for the city of Bradenton consumes 36% of that city’s general-fund; on Longboat Key, the police department consumes 21% of the town’s general-fund budget.

The tables at left reveal more illuminating comparisons as well. The city of Sarasota ranks second among those 15 comparable cities in Florida in terms of the number of uniformed officers per 1,000 residents — an indicator the department may be overstaffed. Clearly it’s an outlier.

And yet, the table below that one shows more disturbing data. Sarasota has the second-highest crime rate among the comparable cities, a fact city officials probably would say justifies the higher number of officers.
That would be one way of looking at that. Another might be the city’s higher crime rate can be attributed to incentives and disincentives — i.e., how crime is punished. People always respond to incentives. If, say, the punishment for crime is low in Sarasota, you would expect more crime.

Either way, this comparative data begs for management to explore why Sarasota’s police costs are outliers from the average — and how they could be improved.

We know one way to reduce costs for sure. The City Commission must be stronger reining in police pension benefits. They must be cut.

Reducng benefits is only part of the path to better fiscal health. Another is what few elected officials like to do: raise taxes. But every one of the commissioners knows this is inevitable.

Perhaps a way to soften and accept that inevitability is to look at more comparisons — how the city of Sarasota’s millage rate compares to the Sarasota school district, Sarasota County and the 14 other cities listed in the accompanying boxes.

• For every local property-tax dollar collected, the city of Sarasota accounts for 19 cents of that $1. The school district takes 46 cents, and the county takes 27 cents.

• Compared to the 14 other cities listed above, the city of Sarasota has the lowest millage rate.

Commissioners know what to do. Whether they have the courage is another matter.


Now that he is retiring, it finally can be told — the story Judge De Furia never wanted to read while he served on the bench: He walked out of Publix at Christmas time without paying.

We witnessed it.

But it was totally innocent — and totally Judge De Furia.

As a longtime resident of Longboat Key, Judge De Furia has developed a lot of friends on the Key. And invariably, when he does his weekly grocery shopping at the Longboat Key Publix, it takes him twice as long as it otherwise might because he often becomes engrossed in friendly conversations with neighbors, friends and certainly Publix staffers.

That’s what happens at the Longboat Publix. It’s the town square.

A few years ago, at Christmas time, the judge drove up in his low-riding sports car, exchanged pleasantries as he dropped a donation into the Salvation Army pot outside the store and, with his recyclable bags in hand, proceeded inside to do his shopping.

Thirty, 40 minutes later, he emerged with a couple of bags of groceries. He cheerfully bid the Salvation Army bell ringer adieu and headed toward his car.

No more than five minutes later, the judge pulled back in the parking lot and began walking briskly into the store.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I got so caught up in my conversations inside, I walked out without paying!”

Embarrassed, yet laughing at his absent-mindedness, the judge pleaded not to be reported in the Observer’s “Cops Corner.”

We have held that chit all this time. But now that he’s retiring, the truth comes out: He was an honest judge.


There’s a new revenue line in the city of Sarasota’s budget showing “Major Revenue Sources.” It’s called “Red light citations.”

And it’s a winner — for the city.

In its first year of operating red-light cameras, the city generated $557,935 from catching motorists running red lights. When this fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the city expects to have collected $1,011,000, an 81% increase.

And for fiscal 2013-2014, the city expects red-light fines to increase 91%, to $1,932,000.

Yeah, right, the red-light cameras are all about improving safety at intersections. C’mon, we all know: Follow the money. It’s all about the money.

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