Last October, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, one of Florida's largest law enforcement agencies, laid off nearly 50 police officers and eliminated 23 vacant officer positions, in response to an $18 million budget cut by the Jacksonville city council.
The cuts trimmed the sheriff's department to roughly 1,600 officers, who must patrol a city of 820,000 that sprawls over nearly 900 square miles.
Warren A. Jones, a Jacksonville councilman who represents a high-crime district, called the vote on the cuts one of the most difficult he could recall.
"Right before we took up the budget, I had 15 people shot in my district over a 48-hour period," Jones said. "It was tough."
Like most of Florida, Jacksonville has been battered by the housing bust, with falling real estate prices sapping tax revenues and vanishing construction jobs contributing to stubbornly high unemployment. The result has been ever-deeper budget deficits requiring heavy cuts in city services.
Florida, a perennial swing state, is expected to play a pivotal role in this year's presidential election, and the wave of police layoffs and deep police department budget cuts in Jacksonville and other cities is a clear indicator of the economic malaise that the state still faces. And while the budget cuts may not have an impact on Tuesday's primary, by November they could play a significant role.
Still, how Jacksonville's police cutbacks will impact public safety remains unclear. As with many cities across the country, Jacksonville has seen its crime rate decline over the past decade, after reaching a record high in the 1990s. But as recently as last year, Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, had the highest murder rate in Florida -- which itself remains one of the most violent states in the country.
Other Florida cities are wrestling with the same painful budget math. Buffeted by the economic crisis, police agencies large and small have been forced to slash payrolls -- or squeeze painful concessions in pay and benefits from police unions.
Miami, with the highest murder rate in the state, has trimmed its police budget by $25 million since 2009, but federal assistance has so far allowed the city to avoid significant police layoffs.
Nevertheless, Miami only narrowly avoided laying off nearly 120 officers in January, after the city's police union grudgingly accepted a contract requiring officers to contribute 4 percent of their pay to cover their health insurance. Even so, police layoffs might be inevitable, with city leaders projecting an additional budget deficit of $30 million or more later this year.
Smaller cities, from Daytona Beach to Port St. Lucie, have also trimmed police payrolls in response to budget woes.
But while Florida, which received tens of billion of dollars in stimulus funds, could clearly benefit from a continuing influx of federal aid, the rhetoric from Republicans campaigning in Tuesday's primary has emphasized sweeping cuts to federal spending in the name of deficit reduction and largely rejected further stimulus spending as a waste of taxpayer money.
President Barack Obama, on the other hand, proposed last fall more than $400 billion in federal tax relief and direct aid to boost job creation and help struggling cities. The president's bill, which has not advanced in the Republican-led House, includes $4 billion in direct grants to prevent further police officer layoffs. The measure would be largely financed with a tax increase on incomes of more than $1 million.
Neither Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, the leading Republican contenders, have offered specific policy proposals to reduce layoffs of public sector employees such as police officers, and campaign representatives for both candidates did not respond to questions about police layoffs.
Michael Linden, director of tax and budget policy for the Center for American Progress, said that a jobs plan advanced by former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, currently leading polls in Florida, would do little to reduce layoffs of cops, firefighters and teachers.
"There's no recognition that state and local governments are feeling the pinch and are having to lay off these folks," Linden said.
Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, "is an even more radical version of Romney," Linden added. Gingrich has called for a 15 percent individual "flat tax" that would reduce federal revenue by an estimated $1.28 billion annually, a roughly 35 percent reduction of current revenue, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution.
Such massive cuts on the federal level would quickly result in further layoffs of state public sector employees, as federal outlays dried up, Linden said.
Democrats, meanwhile, appear likely to seize on the issue of police officer layoffs in the coming general election campaign. Last October, Vice President Joseph Biden touted the Obama administration's jobs plan while visiting Michigan and Pennsylvania, where budget deficits have forced numerous cities to lay off officers, even in the face of rising crime.
"I call on the members of Congress to step up," Biden said in Philadelphia. "Make a choice for the people in your district. Should they have more teachers back in school? Should they have police on the beat?"
"Should they have firefighters in the firehouse? Or should you save a millionaire from a $500 tax? Ladies and gentlemen, it's that basic and that simple," Biden said.
Yet it remains unclear whether the administration's jobs argument will resonate in cities like Jacksonville, where despite shrinking police payrolls, crime continues to steadily decline from the record highs of the 1990s.
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford says the recent layoffs have not affected his office's emergency response capabilities. And statistics show that homicides and other violent crime continued to fall last year, following a decade-long trend.
But Jones, the Jacksonville city councilman, said that if the city's budget situation does not improve, further police layoffs may be on the horizon -- potentially reducing the city's ability to patrol neighborhoods still beset by high crime.
"If additional cuts were to come, I don't know how we would respond," Jones said. "We would have some tough decisions to make."
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