Finance committee gives sheriff budget break

Jacksonville Fire-Rescue plans to balance its smaller budget by raising fees

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Next year's budgets for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department are getting squeezed, but the City Council Finance Committee on Friday agreed to credit JSO with $10.5 million it saved due officer pay cuts earlier this year.

While the full council must also approve the deal -- expected later this month -- this is the concession Sheriff John Rutherford says he needed to avoid officer layoffs and closing a successful substance-abuse program for prisoners known as the Matrix House.

"Obviously, we are very pleased that we are going to be able to maintain the 95 police officers on the street and also the Community Transition Center, where a great drug treatment program is being run," Rutherford said after the vote.

The additional money isn't enough to avoid layoffs of community service officers and civilian employees like dispatchers and nurses. JSO will also cut traffic operations for special events and Jaguars games.

The city had budgeted spending that $10.5 million elsewhere.

"We need those dollars for the entire operations that we are trying to do," said Ronnie Belton, Jacksonville's chief financial officer.

The chairman of the Finance Committee also felt like the sheriff was coming out ahead at the expense of others.

"The sheriff has some allies on the council. If he asked for $10 million or $40 million, he is going to get votes from certain people on the council," Chairman John Crescimbeni said. "I am disappointed that my colleagues don't recognize that we are taking all of our savings from all of the other departments and giving them all to the sheriff to offset his pension cost. We are going to cut library employees to pay police officers' pension cost, and I don't think that is right."

Another agency that's having to make big changes to save money in next year's budget is Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, and its chief say those changes could affect residents.

Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt explained to council members Friday how he plans save $6.7 million, mostly by increasing revenues from fees charged for its services.

One change will be to increase fire inspections for businesses from once every eight years to yearly.

Businesses are required to pay for that inspection, which can run from $45 to $250 depending on the size. It will bring in about $1.7 million to the city.

"Certain businesses require a one-year inspection," Senterfitt said. "Our process is, we want to inspect all businesses every year. We believe that is the right thing to do for safety across the board. So business inspections every year."

The Fire Department is also looking to increase ambulance runs. In the past, it has refused to transport some patients. There have been concerns about that, even legal action taken. But it's also proven to be a profitable measure for the department.

With nearly 5,800 ambulance runs a month, the Fire Department would charge each patient about $300. That could work out to more than $5 million a year.

"We have not transported when we should," Senterfitt said. "What I required as director of fire chief is we will follow medical protocol and we will transport when appropriate. And they can refuse transport. They always have the right to refuse transport."

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