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Sheriff, BPD await ‘painful’ budget season

MANATEE — As demand for service continues to rise, the money for law enforcement to get the job done is going to be slashed this budget season to the tune of millions of dollars.

And everything is on the table for local agencies, including layoffs, furloughs and pay freezes for officers and deputies.

“It is going to be a very painful process,” said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

For the first time in decades, a Manatee sheriff is looking at a smaller budget than the year before, as Hunzeker has asked Sheriff Brad Steube to cut $4.5 million from the current $97 million budget.

The request has Steube raising the possibility of layoffs, delays in equipment purchases and, for the second year in a row, no pay raises for deputies.

“I am extremely concerned,” said Steube. “We are looking at everything right now to see where we can cut. Unfortunately, that includes the possibility of laying people off.”

Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski is bracing for a similar pinch and has already told his officers that no raises are coming and unpaid furloughs are likely.

“I was frank with everyone that this is coming,” Radzilowski said.

This comes as demand for service has continued to rise in recent years. In 2007, the sheriff’s office responded to 211,516 calls for service. In 2008, that number jumped by more than 10 percent to 232,973.

This year’s calls for service have also climbed, with 18,143 in February to 20,996 in March. In 2007, deputies handled 580 calls a day, which jumped to 637 a day in 2008.

Crime in the county also spiked from 2007 to 2008 with a slight increase of 0.4 percent. The sheriff’s office saw a 2.4 percent increase in crime in unincorporated Manatee, which led to the overall spike in the county. In Bradenton, crime dropped 5.1 percent, a trend Radzilowski said budget cuts could jeopardize.

“Over the last five years we have seen crime go down, and we want to keep it that way,” Radzilowski said.

Steube has attributed the spike to a down economy. Manatee’s unemployment jumped from 4.5 percent in January 2008 to 8.2 in December. In March, it hit 11.1 percent.

At a meeting Monday, Steube will give Hunzeker a first look at his proposed budget. Steube is not saying exactly what or who might be cut, though some things have already been chopped.

“We are putting off our equipment replacement schedule to make things go farther,” said Steube. “And overtime is going to be significantly cut.”

Radzilowski said in Bradenton, all new equipment and training requests are being denied, and expenses are being slashed across the board, down to use of paper and staples.

“There is no fat at this police department. We are as lean as we can get right now,” Radzilowski said.

That includes the number of officers needed to meet demand, the chief said. The department has 119 officers and three open spots.

“It is as low as we can go and still provide the level of service we expect. I don’t know what we are going to have to cut, but I start worrying when I have to pull officers off the street. I don’t know yet if this is going to affect the boots on the ground,” Radzilowski said.

Manatee Community College criminologist Greg Arnold, a former long-time law officer, said it is common for department heads to warn of a spike in crime during budget times. But studies have shown it is not a crime wave residents should fear if there are fewer officers on the street, he said.

Instead, it will mostly mean an overall taxing of the criminal justice system and frustration as response times on service calls increase.

“It has been proven that routine patrol really doesn’t reduce crime. Most officers work their whole careers and never stop a crime in progress,” said Arnold. “Most arrests are made based on calls for service and eyewitness accounts.”

Arnold said residents will most likely not see an increase in response times to emergencies, but it is going to take longer to talk to an officer or deputy about a stolen bicycle.

“In lean budget times, you have to prioritize with your emergency response your top priority. So it may be two hours before a deputy can take the routines calls on, say, a theft. So it just bogs the system down, and frustration levels can rise.”

Arnold said budget cuts also mean more work for deputies and officers on the street.

“Those deputies will really be churning calls. And that might mean you just can’t spend as much time with people,” said Arnold.

That churning feeling is what can affect morale in a department during lean budget times, according to Radzilowski.

“Officers can understand that the money isn’t there for a raise, but if you have to take officers off the street it means more work for officers that are already handling a heavy load,” he said.