BRADENTON - Vice Mayor and City Councilman Bemis Smith said Wednesday that the Police Department is doing a very good job.
But it doesn't help the conversation, he told Police Chief Michael Radzilowski, to go to the newspapers and talk about staffing. A story in the Bradenton Herald on Wednesday morning, with the chief as a source, said the safety of law enforcement and residents could be at risk without more funding and more officers.
"We're basically having our own department saying that our citizens are at risk if we keep the same number of police officers that we've had for the last couple of years when our crime rate's been going down," Smith said, "and we have the same number of officers on the road, in the field, this year, in the 2010 budget, the way I understand it, as we did in previous years, that how that becomes a critical risk to our community."
"That's the point. The numbers haven't stayed constant," Radzilowski replied. "As I tried to explain in the e-mail, I know the council is doing the best it can with the money, but it's my job to tell you what we actually need minimum to do an adequate job. We had, authorized and funded, 122. That's the minimum I need, because four of those go to the schools. So that bumps me down to actually 118, for 54,000 people. But we've been on a hiring freeze, and now we're down to 117 with four in the schools, so that's 113 that I'm running with. So that's what makes it critical, that 113 number is just not enough police officers for the workload to increase every year and for 54,000 people.
"It's a little frustrating on my end when I'm trying to maintain at least a 122-man police force for the minimum I believe with all my experience we need, we get $500,000 in revenue for this year that we didn't have last year, and I still can't hire 122, I can only go up to 120, because that's all the money we have for."
"I was funded for 122, but we hired 120."
Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said that Radzilowski should have raised concerns with the mayor, Wayne Poston, who is also the police commissioner. The mayor did not attend the meeting due to a family issue.
"The mayor serves as the police commissioner. There has not been a council liaison appointed for some time. What does your police commissioner say?" she asked.
"The conversation I had with the police commissioner said it was really up to the council to raise taxes enough to fully fund the minimum the police department needs at 122. He asked me to go talk to the council about it," the chief said.
Barnebey said Radzilowski came to see her, but stuck his head in her office and then left.
"The only one I didn't seek was Mr. Smith, he was never in," Radzilowski said. "In fact, you and I had two very brief conversations. From my perspective, you made your position perfectly clear."
Advice from a city veteran
Councilman Gene Gallo, who served for more than 31 years in the Bradenton Fire Department, including 11 years as fire chief, said he had worked under the "stingiest" mayor and council to run the city.
"Their method of telling you what you were going to do and what you couldn't do was a whole lot different from ours," he said. "Keeping that thought in mind, I have to express that I had similar feelings that you presently have about my staffing, equipment, station locations, the stations we had, and was concerned about the safety also of the people who lived in the city.
"But knowing the pot that contained all the money had a steel lid on it and was locked at several locations, I had to think a little bit out of the box. And presently the Fire Department is doing that right now. They are under the same strains you are. They do not have enough stations to properly cover the city, and enough personnel to do what they should do."
What Radzilowski should do, as Gallo said he did and as the fire department is doing, is look to the county Sheriff's Office for assistance if he needs it on calls at the edges of the city.
"I can't believe in my heart and mind that every time there was an issue in the city that was in the far east or far west that we can't get an officer to in a hurry, that the county didn't have something going on," Gallo said. "It seems to me that arrangements could be made to have some kind of automatic response."
Legally, they can operate in the city and have the authority to do that, Gallo said.
"We certainly pay for that," he said. "Why don't we look at that?"
Radzilowski replied that he agrees with that idea, but noted that the county Sheriff's Office is having the same problems he is, and sometimes cannot respond.
"The problem is, for general workload, they are in the same boat we are," he said. "Calls for service are workload-driven. We will go back and meet with the sheriff and see how we can help each other."
He said he and his department will provide safety the best they can with what they have, but his knowledge tells him he needs more officers.
"I've been in this business for a long time, and I know how to run a police department, and anything less than 122 really puts the citizens, somebody's neighborhood, somebody's ward, at a greater risk because the boots are not on the ground," he said. But with 54,000 people in the city with 95,000 calls a year, he said, "I don't want to be like the Maytag repairman, call me and I'll schedule you when I can get there, but I hope it's not coming to that."
Comparing police and fire
Smith said the Bradenton Fire Department has managed with fewer people, but Radzilowski said you can't compare police and fire departments that way because the work is different.
"I don't think you can compare police departments and fire departments because the workload is entirely different, but if you look at other police departments you'll see the value of the dollar that the city residents get, they get a big bang for their buck," he said. "When it comes down to money, what we're talking about is another $100,000."
Revenues have fallen 16 percent since 2007, Smith said, while the police department has been cut 7 percent. Other departments have taken a big hit in the city, too.
"I'm not trying to beat up the Police Department," he said. "I'm just saying I get frustrated when I read in the paper that we basically are trying to put scare tactics, at least the way you read it in the paper whether you meant it that way or not, I don't know. When you open the paper and the headline says something is "critical risk," then it stirs the pot. If every time I went to the newspaper that I disagreed with one of my council members and said, 'Oh my God, if you do what Ms. Barnebey is doing, it's "critical risk" here,' and Mr. Nudi here puts it in a headline across the top, then it doesn't build for a good, friendly relationship."
The city is doing the best it can, Smith said, and police officers have gotten a bigger raise than the general public. He then repeated something Gallo mentioned about it being hard to get more money in taxes when constituents aren't asking for more spending and taxes.
The need to talk
"I think it's incumbent upon you, if you were told to get with the council members to discuss this, again, sticking your head in my door, interrupting me, you didn't ask me for an appointment, talk to me for two minutes and walk away. Is that fair to me? And you say you understand now? I don't think so," Barnebey said. "Yet, like Mr. Smith, I take up the paper and see 'critical shortage' and I had one phone call" from a prominent person in the community.
Running to the newspaper tends to convolute the discussion needed to make things go, Smith added.
"We have to be able to carry on the debate in a way that is not by fearmongering when we make these decisions. I have a difficult time with the way it was presented publicly, not with the fact that you haven't expressed concisely and clearly what your concerns were," he said.
Radzilowski denied running to the newspaper.
"I did not run to the newspaper, and I hope you're not suggesting that I not talk to the newspaper, and not be honest with the people of this community," the chief said.
"Absolutely, I do ...," Smith said, then was interrupted by Radzilowski, whose voice got louder.
"Then why the 'fearmongering' comment? Why the 'fearmongering' comment? Because I used my experience to say, 'This is what's going on.'? That's not fair; that's not right," he said.
"You don't believe that it's seen as fearmongering when we read in the paper that people are going to be less safe because of something that we've done?" Smith asked.
Radzilowski interrupted again, "Telling people the truth is not fearmongering, sir. This is what it is."
"Isn't that just your interpretation?" Smith said. "You were saying in the paper that we should have 125 officers for the number of people we have based on the average, and we only have 121 or something to that effect."
"Sir, yes," the chief replied. "That is based on my 40 years of police executive experience, correct. That's my opinion."
"And has our crime rate not been going down for the last five years with less police officers than what we should have had according to your standards?" Smith asked.
"Exactly. The crime rate continues to go down," Radzilowski said.
"My point is that to assume that if we don't have the two officers doesn't necessarily assume that our crime rate's going to go up," Smith said. "That's your opinion, but we have a great police department that's done a lot of great things with a little less money that they've had and less police officers."
"But the crime rate doesn't reflect the order-maintenance type of crimes that people are calling about," Radzilowski said. "The drug selling, the drinking in public, the disorderly, the family disturbance. All those things that really drive the workload are not in that top tier of reported crime. That's what drives the wheel of the police department, that's what drives 911, that's what drives police response."
If we're trying to run the city as a business, it can't be done that way, Smith said.
"If the vice president of a large corporation doesn't like the way his chairman is running the business, he typically isn't around very long after he runs to the newspapers saying the CEO is doing a horrible job," he said. "It's not conducive to our conversation."
"I don't disagree, but here again I have a responsibility to let you all know and I will accept any decision you have made," Radzilowski replied.
City Clerk Carl Callahan said that there would be no increase in the millage rate, and pointed out that every department had to make sacrifices, though some could now fill positions that had been left vacant, including three in the Police Department.
'He walked on'
Following the workshop, Radzilowski said little, with a comment again about being a Maytag repairman who'd schedule an appointment, then adding, "If they don't want to give me the money, they don't want to give me the money."
Barnebey considered her words carefully.
"I understand that he was instructed by the mayor/police commissioner to come speak to every councilmember," she said. He was walking down the hall yesterday, stuck his head in for a minute or two, I asked him a question, he walked on. I don't consider that sitting down with councilmembers to fully explain the situation.
"I've seen him in other councilmembers' offices having discussions, I'm a duly elected official, he needed to set up an appointment with me as well, and that's not the first time that's happened."
She said she was going to wait and see if the chief contacts her for an appointment.
"I'm going to see if he's going to contact me for an appointment to discuss this or if, with what happened today and the council taking the mayor's hiring freeze off, it that alleviates his concerns," she said. "I don't know."
Ultimately, the City Council is responsible for the budget and the spending. "We're the ones who have to pay the bills and we need to make sure we're rowing in the same direction," she said.
As for Radzilowski's actions and his future, Barnebey again paused before speaking.
"This is America. One of the things that makes America America is a free press, and I strongly support a free press," she said. "If the mayor's unhappy with his performance, then the mayor has to make a change."