Major cuts to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department were squashed as a City Council committee voted Friday to restore money to their budget to keep from closing fire stations.
Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt came under fire in the council chambers. Finance committee members were grilling him about the possibility of closing three fire stations.
Council members learned if they did close the stations and limited operations at others, homeowner insurance rates could skyrocket in Jacksonville.
Senterfitt was facing $15.5 million in cuts for the upcoming fiscal year, but the committee voted to give him most of that money -- $12.5 million of it -- only to have Senterfitt say he would still have to close the stations.
That triggered an ultimatum.
"The fact it was said and that we already restored well over $12 million to their budget, I thought it was a reaction to see how they could get more out of our committee, and I think we stood our ground," Councilman Richard Clark said. "'You will keep those fire stations open. You are going to build a plan and prove to us you can keep them open.' And that's what they committed to today. ... If they don't, we will hold him accountable."
That said, the fire stations in Avondale, near the port in Talleyrand and near St. Nicholas will remain open. Some have said they are political pawns in the fire budget.
"All stations will remain open," Senterfitt said. "At the very end, the council was able to restore $13 of the $15.5 million. That left me a little concerned because that left me $2.5 million short, which concerns me on the overtime side. At the end, the council and I were able to make a compromise that I come back mid-year."
Sheriff says $29M in cuts won't happen because of tax hike
Meanwhile, Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford was suppose to present his budget to City Council members, but that meeting was delayed for two weeks so the council committee will have more time to discuss the sheriff's budget.
Under the mayor's plan, the sheriff would have to cut about $29 million and 380 officers. The sheriff says that won't happen now that council might enact a property tax hike to cover losses.
"I certainly hope so," Rutherford said. "We have a plan on how to keep this community safe, and we will be presenting that on the 29th."
Rutherford said the main thing he will point out to the committee is what is happening with officers.
"We are down 147 policeman," he said. "I have fewer policemen now than I had in 2003. We cut over 325 postions in the last three years."
The sheriff sees that as a reason for the recent wave in violent crime. He points to a graph that shows in 2007 when violent crime was at its highest, he was able to hire more police and then watch as the number of violent crimes dropped.
"Our overall crime is the lowest it's been in 40 years. Forty years," Rutherford said. "But here is the concern: Violent crime is starting to flatten out. It's not going down in double digits like it was when we had 147 police and 92 community service officers."
So even with violent crime leveling off, Rutherford said it is starting to creep up again, and if he can't hire more police, the increase will continue.
"You cut resources and you are going to see more crime," he said.