The vice president of Lexington's police union stopped short of asking council members not to decrease funding for Lexington police officers, but he painted a bleak picture for the city's future if public safety's funding is cut.
"We are not saying the city is unsafe," said Robert Sarrantonio, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4. "We are pointing out the numbers we have accumulated showing ... we are going down a path that could lead to significant problems in Fayette County."
Setting the stage for the city's approaching budget season, Sarrantonio made a presentation to council members during Tuesday's work session. Sarrantonio said the department has lost 86 officers in the past five years, and that was among the reasons he essentially asked the council not to scrimp or cut when it comes to funding public safety officers. But Sarrantonio was challenged, forcefully, by council member Doug Martin.
Even Mayor Jim Gray, in unusually impassioned remarks, told Sarrantonio: "The path we are on is unsustainable. It must change."
Martin said protecting its citizens was the city's most important job.
"The reason we can't afford to hire more officers is we're paying so much in salaries. We're paying so much in medical benefits and pensions," Martin said. "We're basically pricing ourselves out of being able to hire more officers."
Martin said that was a problem that is "only going to get worse" and "it is going to bankrupt the city of Lexington unless we take urgent and drastic measures to stop this runaway pension."
Sarrantonio said since 2002, Lexington's population has increased 13.5 percent to 295,000. The number of reported crimes has risen 20 percent since 2007, while the number of sworn police offices has declined from 593 to 506.
The detective said 123 officers have enough years of service to make them eligible to retire immediately.
Martin said there was no question Lexington needs more police officers but, "the city is going through an unprecedented financial crisis."
One of the sources of that crisis is the escalating expenses of public safety salaries and pensions. In conversations with officials from other cities, Martin said, "We seem to be paying more than other places for our police employees."
In Louisville, for instance, a police officer makes about $55,000 a year compared with $64,000 in Lexington, or 16 percent more, Martin said, quoting figures from official documents from both cities.
"From 2002 to 2010, crime increased from 14 percent to 17 percent," Martin said. "Police expenditures increased from $40 million a year to $70 million."
"We have been pouring more and more money into public safety, but we are less safe today than in 2002," he said.
Martin also took aim at police retirement benefits. A police officer can retire after 16 years employment — by making some additional payment — or 20 years of normal service. Average working citizens in the community don't get to retire with a $54,000 pension (with a 2 to 5 percent raise every year) when they're 40 years old, and have the option to take on another job, Martin said.
It's not that public safety is not important, Martin said. "It is the most important thing we do. But on our pension, pension debt and medical benefits, we owe about $585 million and that is growing by about $50 million a year."
At one point, Sarrantonio said rather heatedly, "words are cheap ... to point a finger at the people who are here and at public safety employees is insulting."
Gray responded, saying to suggest that council members presenting their opinions "is inappropriate or is false is disturbing and disappointing.
"Today I sit here as my mother lies dying. I am here because of that commitment. Just as everyone in this building is here because of their commitments," he said.