RACINE — Of the 24 staff positions expected to be eliminated in the city’s proposed 2021 budget — fully half will come from the Racine Police Department.
An additional nine positions are being eliminated from the Racine Fire Department. No one will be fired, because no one holds those positions now, but no one will be hired for them in the future, either.
The staff reductions were made necessary by an anticipated $5 million revenue shortfall at the start of the budgeting process. The issue will be a topic for discussion during the budget hearings currently underway.
Shannon Powell, communication director for the city, said that over the last ten years the city has eliminated over 100 positions – but not from public safety.
“They have been exempt,” Powell said. “This year, it was not possible to fill that hole without reducing police and fire.
“However, we wanted to be smart about it. We didn’t want to lay people off.”
From 200 cops to 189
Five officer positions at the RPD were not filled during the 2020 budget as a result of the hiring freeze. Those positions are expected to be eliminated in the budget process, along with six others. A vacant clerk’s position also is to be eliminated.
The move will take the sworn force down to 189 positions from 200.
Powell said the police department should be able to absorb that reduction in personnel without a drastic change to service. Additionally, there are no expected changes to the Community Oriented Policing model.
The elimination of the clerk’s position was made possible, in part, by the city’s decision to end the practice of allowing community members to pay tickets at the RPD.
In the future, tickets must be paid at the municipal court. Municipal Judge Rob Weber was amenable to that change, Powell said.
The RPD has about 180 sworn staff currently. Powell explained the department averages 10 fewer officers than budgeted due to retirements and other personnel issues.
At the end of the year, the hiring freeze is expected to lift, and the department will be able to hire to meet the budgeted level of 189 officers.
Powell said the hiring freeze saved the city $1.5 million. If not for that, the budget deficit and personnel eliminations may have been more significant.
Fire Department cuts
At the Racine Fire Department, nine positions will be removed from the budget. Currently, there are seven vacant positions and that number is expected to be nine by the end of the year. The nine represent the lowest level of seniority.
The staffing reduction will take the Fire Department down to 132 personnel.
Powell said the choices faced by the city were a reduction in personnel or the closure of a fire station. Rather than leave a section of the city without a fire station, they opted to reduce the number of personnel budgeted for the fire department.
He said the fire department intends to reduce the number of personnel on ambulance runs from 3-person crews to 2-person crews.
Powell said originally the city anticipated a $5.5 million deficit. At that time, every department was instructed to come up with a scenario for how they would respond to a 5% or 10% cut in their individual budgets.
For the Police Department, that may have meant the elimination of 20 personnel or more. However, the result of the hiring freeze was cost savings so those drastic scenarios did not come to pass.
However, residents can expect the discussion on long-term funding of public safety to be raised again.
The city’s operational levy is just over $37.7 million while public safety expenditures are at about $46.5 million.
“Approximately 138 percent of the general fund levy plus other revenue have to be used to pay for public safety,” Powell said.
Kathleen Fischer, the interim city administrator, said the problem is the result of state legislation that inhibits the city’s ability to raise revenues as the city’s needs expand, or even for basic increases in the cost of service, which she referred to as structural deficits.
And the problem is not unique to Racine.
Both Madison and Milwaukee have announced cuts in their public safety, as well.
Criticism to cuts
In a submitted commentary to The Journal Times, Racine Alderman Henry Perez, a former police officer, criticized the budget cuts calling them “a significant reduction in our public safety response capability.”
He said, “The police department has recently experienced a change in scheduling due to COVID and has recently experienced significant changes in our Level 1 crimes. This is inclusive of rioting, arson, significant shootings and an uptick in crime in our community. It is unconscionable that we plan on reducing our staffing, by attrition, but also with the hiring freeze.”
He went on to say, “I realize that the budget needs to be downsized but doing it at the cost of reducing our public safety is reprehensible. We can do better.”