MAYOR MEETS WITH POLICE, FIREFIGHTERS

          Mayor George Schloegel listens as Gulfport police and firefighters talk about the effects of budget cuts. Schloegel met with the group for about an hour at City Hall on Monday.
           Gulfport police and firefighters gather outside City Hall early M
onday morning in hopes of voicing their concerns about budget cuts to their departments to Mayor George Schloegel.
GULFPORT
Police officers and firefighters, upset over budget cuts they believe jeopardize the public’s safety, gained an audience with Mayor George Schloegel on Monday.The public safety employees began gathering shortly after 7 a.m. outside City Hall, greeting Schloegel as he arrived for work. He agreed as he entered the back door to meet with them once they had assembled.

By 7:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to 65 police officers and firefighters dressed in jeans, T-shirts or other casual, off-duty clothes. Schloegel invited them upstairs to the City Council chambers, where he listened for more than an hour to their concerns before offering some advice.

At meeting’s end, Schloegel thanked the employees for putting their lives on the line daily. He also let them know the city’s financial problems are serious and must be resolved.

“If we keep going like we’re going, we are going to be bankrupt,” said the retired banker, who inherited financial problems when he took office in July. “We’re not going to be able to pay our bills.”

With 10 percent budget cuts citywide, a $9 million deficit has been whittled to around $4 million. The city also is $188 million in debt. More cuts are coming, but the public safety workers said their ranks already have been dangerously thinned. Also, police officers and firefighters said, their families are struggling to meet expenses, just like the ones Schloegel mentioned last week in a State of the City speech.

Both the police and fire departments have lost their overtime. The upshot for residents, they say, is fewer public safety workers responding to emergencies.

Police staffing is 46 officers below the 236 officers an International Association of Police Chiefs survey recommended, Police Lt. Jacob Smith told the mayor. Smith said elimination of overtime cost the department 23,500 hours’ work, with another 4,500 to be lost if the city follows through with three-day furloughs for all city employees except firefighters. The City Council has added to its agenda for this afternoon a vote on whether to approve those furloughs.

One consequence of lost overtime: less time to train in a department that has cut violent crime to levels last seen more than 10 years ago. For example, 16 hours of recommended training has been cut to six hours for Gulfport’s SWAT Team, said Sgt. Paul Podlin, who heads the group.

“We can only sustain this so long before we start having diminishing results,” Podlin said. “The people who suffer are the citizens. The other people being sacrificed are us.”

Fire Department shifts already have been cut by 12 hours per month, which was paid as overtime because of federal law. Firefighters said they also are down about 15 positions due to a citywide hiring freeze. At times, only two firefighters ride three-man trucks, meaning they must wait for backup before entering a burning building.

Also, fewer hours have cut police and fire pay while expenses increase. Health-care costs crept up for city employees in January. The 90 police officers who take home cars and live outside the city limits face the possibility they will have to park their patrol cars at work.

DUI Officer Paul Rhodes said he has lost his house to foreclosure. “I’m a cop through and through,” Rhodes said, “and I love what I do. But it’s hard to keep struggling day by day to pay the bills. We have to feed our families. If we can’t feed our families, we have to go somewhere else. That’s a decision I have to make as a man. We’re at our wit’s end.”

Jacob Smith also addressed Schloegel’s State of the City remarks about employee pay being brought up to the southeastern average. He said the average was from 2006, with pay increases the next two years to reach that level. Employees received no increase in 2009 and won’t in 2010. “We’re back to four years behind the curve,” Smith said. “To say that was an unprecedented pay raise was really a slap in the face.”

Schloegel took notes and listened attentively while the officers and firefighters talked. Then he stood to respond. The mayor offered the crowd some advice and asked for their help. He asked them to pay rumors no heed because they are based on completely inaccurate information. He also asked for ideas. He is open to discuss the take-home car policy, saying officers who live near the city limits probably should keep their cars. He asked the police to work on a proposal so a decision can be made by April.

After the meeting, Schloegel said: “I’ll stand here and take bullets all day if they feel like they’re hurting. These people are my best. I love these people.”

By ANITA LEE – calee@sunherald.com
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