DeKALB – First Ward Alderman David Jacobson brought current budget talks to a heated peak Tuesday night, saying, “It’s reality check time,” in regard to potential cuts to the police and fire departments.
During a special Committee of the Whole meeting that lasted more than four hours, aldermen debated the pros and cons of service cuts for fiscal 2019, in which the police department stands to lose two officers and one commander, and the fire department one deputy fire chief and one firefighter.
The special meeting came after last week's Financial Advisory Committee meeting, during which committee members made recommendations to the council about which positions to cut, and how to address the city's current $1.6 million budget deficit.
Several aldermen want to maintain the current staffing numbers for both departments to adequately address city needs.
Second Ward Alderman Bill Finucane said he “does not want to be the council member that votes to remove two police officers,” in response to Jacobson’s insistence that cuts need to happen because the city can’t afford to maintain the status quo unless it raises taxes.
“So what you’re saying is police and fire are sacred cows,” Jacobson rebutted. He said negotiating salary cuts with unions will be “next to impossible.”
Fourth Ward Alderman Patrick Fagan referenced the work the police department has done in the past year with their Safe Streets Initiative and other concentrated efforts to combat crime in the city as proof of the city's need to keep staffing levels up.
Molly Talkington, city finance director and interim city manager, said although the police department has 65 sworn officers, it has not been operating at that number for years because of injuries, officers out because of the Family Medical Leave Act, vacancies, and other factors.
Sixth Ward Alderman Mike Verbic suggested exploring other ways to reduce crime that might not require police, such as addressing truancy issues in the city.
“There’s a lot of passion here tonight,” Mayor Jerry Smith said. “We need to realize that the art of compromise is where we must be going.”
Another significant aspect of Tuesday’s discussion was the cost of overtime, with an authorization for overhire among potential budget items up for approval.
Fire Chief Eric Hicks said the council will not need to approve overhire for the fire department if it does not vote to cut one firefighter from the budget, since that position can cover the swing shift and reduce overtime.
Lowery said he also prefers the council not cut the two police officers, and that he can live with not having authorized overhire.
Since no formal vote can be taken during Committee of the Whole meetings, Talkington said conversation Tuesday will help her revise the budget document to bring to the council for further review, with a final vote expected sometime in November. A joint meeting with the FAC and council to discuss budget decisions is scheduled for Nov. 5.