Cut open police jobs? Fairfield decision highlights budget struggles

Two council members say not filling two open positions was the wrong decision for the under-staffed department.

Confusion among Fairfield City Council members about whether two open police officer positions should be cut from the budget is the latest struggle by area municipalities to manage the financial impact of the novel coronavirus slowdown.

The cuts, which were approved in a revised operating budget last month, also show the challenge council members face in eliminating positions, especially in public safety.

When City Council first approved the 2020 operating budget, the goal was to hire three officers to reach its full strength of 63 sworn officers, which includes Chief Steve Maynard and his command staff.

The coronavirus slowdown caused local governments to consider budget reductions, and Fairfield city departments were asked to cut 5 percent. It was proposed that Fairfield’s two open officer positions (one of the three open spots was already filled) be part of those cuts.

Council member Mark Scharringhausen said at the June 8 council meeting that the city would be “taking an undue risk” by not filling the positions. He later told the Journal-News he’s “all for budget cuts … but when it comes to public safety, I tend to err on the side of caution.”

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At the June 8 meeting, Scharringhausen and council members Terry Senger, Dale Paullus, Bill Woeste and Leslie Besl said they would support funding the positions. Councilman Chad Oberson wasn’t at that meeting.

But the officer position cuts stayed in the revised budget that passed 4-2 on June 25, with Scharringhausen and Senger voting against it. Paullus and Woeste voted for the revised budget. Besl wasn’t at the June 25 meeting.

Besl said she changed her mind after combing the city’s operating budget and “was struggling” to cut $660,000 from another area.

On June 10, City Manager Mark Wendling sent an email to City Council obtained by the Journal-News indicating he is “confident” the department “can effectively serve the citizens of Fairfield with 61 full-time sworn officers.” He did not recommend additional cuts to the smaller departmental budgets as they would “negatively impact the ability to deliver core services, such as income tax collection, property maintenance, building permits, network stability and human resources management.”

The last time the city faced financial issues with its operating budget was during the 2008-2009 recession, and the city tapped into its unaudited general fund reserves, commonly known as the “rainy day” fund, to operate the city government. The city’s 2019 reserve balance was $19,571,402.

Woeste said he remembers the council coming to “a group understanding” to keep the cuts in, though he doesn’t recall if the consensus was during an executive session discussion or in separate communications with the city manager. Regardless, he said, “If necessary, we’ll go back and take another look at it at another time.”

Paullus declined to comment.

Fairfield City Council member Tim Abbott was the only vocal opposition on June 8 to filling the positions at this time, saying, “I’m not prepared to hire anyone.”

“I would rather see us at this juncture get to where we need to get to with making the cuts before adding more bodies,” he said, adding there are “just a tremendous amount of unknowns” with the COVID-19 impacts, and would be “an easier decision” with more data on the impacts of the virus and tax collection data.

Overall cuts to the operating budget was 3.8 percent, or $2.86 million, of the $75.6 million budget, and impacted most departments, including parks and recreation, public works and utilities, and the police and fire departments. The police department has the city’s largest operational budget.

The two positions would cost the city around $220,000 for salary, benefits and equipment, but the total proposed cuts for the police department is just more than $660,000.

Council also cut the five-year capital improvement program budget was cut by 8.92 percent, or $1.35 million.

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The department is expected to take on some unexpected overtime costs because of lower staffing, Maynard said. He said eight of the department’s 61 sworn officers are not on duty, and when the four school resources officers head back to school next month, the department will be “operating on a skeleton crew,” according to minutes from the senior staff meeting.

Maynard told City Council last month he is “concerned” if the department relies too heavily on overtime, the department could lose officers who don’t want to work overtime.

Three of the eight officers not on a duty assignment are training at the police academy, one is out due to an illness, two are out on extended medical leave, and two are in quarantine for exposure to COVID-19 but should be back next week provided they don’t show virus symptoms, Maynard said.

Scharringhausen, chair of the council's safety committee, said there are also unexpected times where manpower drops. He reminded City Council of a March 6 officer-involved shooting in Fairfield, which required three officers taken off the road and placed on administrative leave for nearly two weeks during an investigation. The three officers were cleared by a Butler County grand jury.

Maynard said while the department will respond to all 9-1-1 calls regardless if the two positions are filled, if manpower drops too far it can hinder in other operations, like investigations. He said they’re not at that point yet.

A big concern for Scharringhausen and Senger is that potential candidates Fairfield would consider may not be available when they decide to fund the positions, or those remaining may not be a good fit for the city. The department was a month or two from potentially choosing candidates to hire. The city may need to wait depending on the candidates remaining on the list for a new test to be given, and it could be at least an additional six months to make hires from that list.

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“We have a list that’s a good list (now),” Scharringhausen said, “and it’s so difficult right now to hire police officers. I simply didn’t want to see that opportunity go by.”

Miller, who doesn’t have a vote barring a tie of City Council, also agreed with Scharringhausen.

“I would absolutely recommend that we get to that 63 number as fast as we can, regardless of the budget,” said Miller at the June 8 meeting. “(There are) too many mysteries out there to get too draconian with our budget. We need these people.”

The city enacted a hiring freeze in April for all city departments, except for police officers and firefighters. There will be at least one more police officer opening at the start of 2021 with an expected retirement.

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