Budget meetings this autumn at City Hall are not the sour affairs of the past two years.
With rebounding sales taxes boosting city revenues, City Council is looking forward to adding things back, rather than taking them away. That's good news for the police and fire departments, which will get a chance to replenish their ranks.
However, according to union leaders, budget increases have done little to improve the mood of many police officers and firefighters. Neither group has received a cost-of-living raise since 2008 (and none is planned for 2011), and like the rest of city staff, public-safety employees are facing increased costs for benefits in 2011. Leaders also say the pressures from years of threatened layoffs and increased workloads, paired with a little envy for better-compensated peers along the Front Range, have taken their toll.
Robin Rogers, executive director of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, says she heard from one cop who had come into the department after being a top performer in his training program. He left to join Chicago's force.
Mike Smaldino, president of the Colorado Springs Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 5, says two firefighters left the department after being threatened with possible layoffs. One took a job in Alaska as a state patrol officer; the other went back to his old job as a military firefighter.
"If your job has been in question for a number of years, what do you expect?" Smaldino asks. "You've got to do what's right for your family. ... You've got to take the realistic approach and say, 'Is my job going to be there?'"
City Council has always turned a kinder eye toward public-safety funding, even in the worst of the recession. While both departments were bracing for layoffs, Council saved them from losing numbers that way. Now, with more money rolling in, both departments will conduct training academies for the first time in two years, allowing them to fill vacancies that have racked up. Police plan to fill 55 positions, the Fire Department, 21.
While both departments have lost employees due to attrition, neither has seen a large increase in people leaving for other jobs. Yet.
"I would worry about that," says police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Noblitt. "I do worry about that."
Both Smaldino and Rogers say sworn employees are looking for better opportunities — and greater job security — in other cities. Smaldino points out that getting hired at another fire or police department can take months or years, so it's possible the Springs could be seeing the after-effects of the bad budget years for some time to come.
"There were a lot of people looking around," Acting Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith says of the past couple years.
Resignations always hit departments hard because it takes months to train a replacement, and because training is very expensive. Including salary during that period, it costs an average of about $36,000 to train a police officer and $35,000 to train a firefighter.
No raises are planned for police or fire in 2011, though both departments are about 10 percent behind the city-calculated median for pay, and many other Front Range communities are giving raises this year.
All of which has led Rogers to develop an as-of-late mantra to Council: "Take care of the people you have."
Tune-up for transit?
After several years of cuts, the city is facing a different kind of choice related to bus service: where to reinstate it. According to the proposed 2011 budget for Mountain Metropolitan Transit, the city could use more than $3 million to support continued FrontRange Express service and perhaps reverse the controversial cutbacks on nights and/or Saturdays.
While the money can't be stretched far enough to bring back all weekend routes, or nighttime routes on weekday evenings, City Council has several options for how to spend the money. For $1.7 million, all routes could be reinstated on Saturdays. For $887,000, all routes could run an hour longer (past 7 p.m.) at night. For $1 million, a limited number of routes could run for three hours longer in the evening.
In his proposal to Council, Interim City Manager Steve Cox suggests that the city fund existing FREX service, along with limited Saturday service and a three-hour extension to limited service on weekdays. But that hasn't met instant approval.
"Do we have to spend every dollar that is available to us?" asks Councilman Sean Paige. "Let's not be hastily adding back things that we can't sustain. ... Do we have to spend all of that money, and if we didn't, what could we do with it and where could we stash it to give ourselves some options as we move forward?"
Councilors should make decisions next week on transit's 2011 budget.
— Chet Hardin
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