When he ran for mayor in 2006, Jim Newberry committed to hiring 150 police officers by 2010.
In January, after he'd been in office a year, Newberry revised that to say he would hire 50 police officers each year for two years in order to keep crime down.
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So far, in the face of tight budgets, the city has budgeted for 25 new officers since Newberry took office almost two years ago. Last month, Newberry raised the prospect of laying off 100 police officers — and shutting down five fire stations — to help fund police and fire pensions.
The mayor's comments have left some police officers who supported his election bid feeling stung. Many of them are raising questions about how the department would cope with such a reduction in force.
Mike Sweeney, president of the Bluegrass Lodge No. 4 of the Fraternal Order of Police, recently chastised Newberry for saying the city might have to lay off police and firefighters.
"My first reaction to it was it's petty on his part," said Sweeney. "He almost makes it sound like it's our fault that this issue has come to the forefront."
Following the comments about possible layoffs, Newberry said he would still like to hire more police officers, and he acknowledged a need for more fire stations.
"But our budget is very sensitive to economic trends, and times are tough right now," Newberry said in a statement.
Newberry said projections for the upcoming budget year show flat revenue growth, and the city already has new expenses, including higher salaries for police and fire set through collective bargaining.
Newberry has instituted a government-wide hiring freeze, and all hires are approved on a case-by-case basis. He said it could be months before the city makes any decisions about staffing and layoffs.
During former police Chief Anthany Beatty's administration, the department battled to keep its numbers high as several officers left the department in search of higher salaries elsewhere.
In 2005, Beatty created a plan to hire nearly 200 additional officers in four years, adding 70 officers the first year and 43 each additional year. The plan would have increased the authorized strength of the Division of Police from 518 sworn officers to 717 by its completion.
Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin, who took the reins from Beatty last December, said he realizes the agency is not on track with that plan. He said it's too early to say how layoffs would affect the department and its ability to serve the community.
Bastin said these are tough economic times for everyone, but he's sure the mayor will look at all options before he makes a decision.
"We're all going to have to shoulder some of the burden," Bastin said.
Numbers have risen
The number of officers the city has authorized for the Division of Police has increased about 15 percent since 2005.
The division was authorized for 540 officers in 2005. The number increased to 570 in 2006, and then 595 — the department's current authorized strength — in 2007.
There are currently 569 sworn officers, according to numbers provided by police last month.
Losing 100 police officers would mean Lexington's rate of sworn officers would decline from 2.1 to 1.7 per 1,000 residents, according to data in the FBI's 2007 Uniform Crime Report.
In 2007, the national rate of sworn city police officers was 2.3 per 1,000 population, according to FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics. The rate for cities with populations of 250,000 to 499,999 was 2.2.
Newberry's critics say this is not the time for him to lay off police because crime rates likely will increase with the struggling economy. And thousands of people are expected to visit Lexington for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Sweeney said eliminating 100 officers would make it difficult for Lexington police to adequately function during the Games.
"I think he's inviting trouble," Sweeney said.
Lexington police officer Tommy Puckett, a former pension board member who sued the city to increase its contribution to the police and fire pension fund, said he is concerned about the lack of officers in this economy.
"I personally feel that crime's going to go up because of the economic times," Puckett said. "I just don't feel like we can afford to lose any more officers and do the quality job that we're doing right now."
Across the country, tough budget times have caused some agencies to double-up on the number of officers in a cruiser and cut services such as drug education programs for students, said Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. But he could not recall any law enforcement agency that has resorted to layoffs.
In Louisville, Mayor Jerry Abramson has implemented an immediate hiring freeze, which includes public safety workers, and frozen open positions in the police department. Last year, the city excluded public safety workers during a hiring freeze.
"The last thing you want to cut is a firefighter or a police officer," said Kerri Richardson, a communications coordinator in Abramson's office. "We wanted to streamline in other ways first, if we could."
The city's contribution
Newberry's comments about possible layoffs came after the Lexington Policemen's and Firefighter's Pension Board voted to raise the city's contribution level from about 18 percent to 46.6 percent of the total payroll for police and firefighters for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Newberry said the city couldn't afford that rate, which would cost an additional $20 million.
The city spends 54 percent of its General Fund budget on public safety, Newberry said. So the city can't make significant cuts without affecting public safety.
Sweeney acknowledged that Newberry did not create a $250 million unfunded liability in the pension fund. Police and firefighters have argued for years that the city has underfunded the pension system. In February, a judge ruled in favor of five Lexington police officers who sued over the city's pension fund contributions.
The ruling meant the city might have to fork over more than $30 million in back payments — Puckett says it could be as much as $45 million — to shore up the pension fund for police officers and firefighters. The city has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which has not decided whether it will hear the case.
The chairman of a task force designed to address the unfunded liability says no single person or entity caused the problem. Bill Lear says several factors led to the city's predicament, including salary increases, unfunded state mandates on benefits and a change in actuaries.
"It's hard to point the finger at anybody, really, unless you point the finger at everybody," Lear said. "You can't just say the government hasn't done its job."