Dial 911

In his first 20 days in office, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer delivered on a campaign promise by cutting the city's remaining $15.8 million budget deficit. He delayed several projects, cut money to the arts and froze an employee-bonus program. He also agreed to get agenda information to commissioners earlier than his predecessor, and provide them with a monthly budget analysis for each city department. All of which is an improvement over the way Glenda Hood handled money. She didn't even give the council a quarterly budget report.

Dyer is expected to make changes after his transition team investigates Orlando's budgeting process.

The city has suffered a budget deficit bigger than 1 percent four times since 1982. The most serious, a 5-percent drop in the general-revenue fund balance, occurred in 1987 as Orlando was trying to pay for the T.D. Waterhouse Centre.

The fiscal year that ended September 2002 saw a 4.6 percent decrease, though administrators didn't announce a problem until December. According to a city analysis, the $23 million deficit occurred because expenses in five of the city's eight departments increased over the previous year, while revenues from property taxes and the city's utility company, Orlando Utility Commission, decreased.

The problem can be traced, in part, to a tax cut proffered by Hood Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks, that didn't go into effect until October of that year. Bad timing, perhaps. But the tax break cut $4.6 million out of the budget last year, and $4.8 million out of the budget this fiscal year. "That was the stupidest thing possible we could have done," says District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan. "We cut the millage rate and wonder why revenue is down."

Sheehan thinks Hood spent money recklessly after Sept. 11 because she was hoping to land a high-level position in President Bush's Homeland Security office. Hood, as chairwoman of Jeb Bush's Domestic Security Advisory Panel, was there to greet Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge when he visited Orlando in February 2002. And she did allocate more than $8 million in overtime, mostly for increased fire and police protection. "I think her mind was elsewhere," Sheehan says.

Orlando isn't alone in lavishing money on overtime. Jacksonville, for example, spent $20 million in overtime in its last fiscal year, $9.85 million (or 48.4 percent) of which went to the Jacksonville County Sheriff's Office. St. Petersburg has already spent $5.5 million in overtime this fiscal year.

And those two cities don't have an airport the size of Orlando International Airport, which contracts the Orlando police to provide security. Following Sept. 11, police officers were required by federal policy to increase protection. Some officers took home more than $50,000 extra in overtime pay last year. The airport police squad was budgeted for $87,500 in overtime in each of the last two fiscal years. It spent $1.62 million last budget cycle, and is already at $872,000 this year. The Greater Orlando Airport Authority, which pays the city for police service, still owes Orlando for the extra hours -- $1 million from last year.

In some ways, Orlando's fire department had it worse than police post Sept. 11. Firefighters responded to as many as 40 anthrax scares a day back then, in addition to bomb scares and routine fire emergencies. The fire department rolled out a 24-hour hazardous-materials team, and a search-and-rescue team designed to pull survivors from collapsed buildings. The department's budget soared. The department spent $6 million more than its $36 million budget. According to a city analysis, by January 2003, the fire department had already spent 99 percent of its overtime budget for the whole fiscal year, which ends in September.

"The fire department is absolutely out of control,"commissioner Vicki Vargo wrote to Orlando's chief administrative officer, Richard Levey, in January. "How are you going to hold chief `Charlie` Walker to allowable overtime?"

Becky Ares, the city's budget director, responded in a memo that the fire department "is what it is. I do not have the power to make changes to their operations that may help relieve their financial spending."

The person who does have the power, chief Walker, declined to comment. He did say that Vargo's comment was off base. "We are not out of control," he says.

Some think Walker and senior fire managers want to avoid a confrontation with Levey (who is Walker's boss), especially with a new mayor in office. Already three administrators have resigned, two of whom were forced out by Dyer.

Firefighters' union president Steve Clelland, whose local, 1365, endorsed Dyer in the last election, says increased overtime is attributable to city managers neglecting to properly staff the department at recommended federal levels. Two fire engines, the search-and-rescue vehicle at the downtown station, and a tower engine at station No. 9 in Rosemont -- Vargo's district -- are still undermanned by as many as four firefighters in a three-day shift, Clelland says.

Consequently, the department pays for sick or vacationing firefighters out of their overtime budgets. "The `Hood` administration could have hired personnel and paid full-time salaries, but they chose to take a chance and run departments short," Clelland says. "That decision was made at the administrative level and approved by the commission. When all of a sudden the fire department is $6 million over budget, in comparison to a $23 million deficit, no one owns up to the responsibility. They criticize the fire department when we're as lean as any department in the city."

City administrators also reduced the department's budget, and fire officials didn't notice the $4.8 million gap until January. Among the discrepancies: a $1.3 million shortfall in a renegotiated union contract, $600,000 for new hires as they went through orientation and $1.9 million in pension benefits.

Clelland says he hasn't spoken to Dyer about the budget even though Dyer hosted a thank-you party for his campaign volunteers at union headquarters March 24. "I'm sure he'll figure it out on his own," Clelland says.

Dyer will have to if he wants to get a handle on the budget. Hood has already reaped the benefits of the city's largesse, leaving firefighters as the scapegoats. "After 9-11, everybody rallied around firefighters," Clelland says. "`Administrators` spent the money. They went to the ribbon cuttings for the equipment. But when things get bad, they say, 'It's their fault, it's their fault.'"

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