KC police, firefighters finally reined in
The Kansas City Star
All of a sudden three of Kansas City’s most powerful public officials are supporting a taxpayer-friendly goal long needed: reining in the city’s public safety agencies.
Both Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte boldly say the Fire Department can safely manage a 6 percent budget cut of $7.6 million.
And both men, plus Chief Darryl Forte, say it’s time for the police to finally join a unified health insurance plan with City Hall.
Bully for them. Reducing the bloated firefighting staff and trimming the police personnnel’s generous health care plan are practical and long-needed actions. Neither change would threaten public safety. Both are in sync with benefits provided other city workers.
The announcements by James, Schulte and Forte helped draw throngs of concerned firefighters and police officers to City Council meetings last week. After all, this is a sea-change from recent years, when Fire Chief Smokey Dyer constantly defended the largesse of his agency and former Police Chief Jim Corwin fended off cooperating wih City Hall on insurance and consolidation of other functions.
Now look what’s happening.
Forte has released a statement indicating he’s on board with resolving the health insurance matter, saying, “Our common goal, at both police headquarters and City Hall, is to make Kansas City the safest community in America.”
That prompted an irate response from the Fraternal Order of Police, which noted, “Sadly, the department and the city, in what appears to be a political power play, have chosen to issue this public announcement prematurely without first negotiating with the FOP.”
Over at the Fire Department, Dyer didn’t endorse Schulte’s original plan to cut the firefighting force by 105 people. But given James’ backing of controlling costs for the agency, Dyer was “developing an alternative plan” this week on how to trim fire funds, according to Schulte. That’s positive.
In his budget message last week, James made a powerful point I’ve hoped to hear for years: Kansas City can’t continue cutting its other basic services while leaving public safety pretty much alone.
James said the city had added 677 cops, firefighters and ambulance personnel since 2000, while slashing 663 jobs in other departments. He wants to “enhance efficiencies in our public safety sector.”
Agreed. Now, will change really happen?
The police force and fire union remain formidable powers in city government. They point out that citizen satisfaction surveys show high support for public safety. True: Kansas City’s 2011 survey showed 74 percent satisfaction with public safety. That’s well ahead of many other city services, but still below the national average of 75 percent.
Cops and firefighters don’t like the current talk of trims. Here are brief excerpts from emails to me and remarks on our Midwest Voices blog:
- Try being a cop: “Next time you hear a gunshot, run towards that shot and handle what you run into.”
And this: “The men and women of the KCPD who go out every day into our community not knowing if they will come home or not do not deserve to have negative opinions written about how lofty they have it.”
Cops are good people: “I didn’t decide to become a police officer to become rich or famous, but to give back and be able to say at the end of my life that I made a difference.”
Kansas City created its own fiscal problems: “KC would not have such dire financial needs if they had responsible rather than irresponsible government.”
Stop hating on public safety personnel: “At best, I’d say your statements are uneducated and misguided regarding the operations of these lines of work, and I’ve at times wondered if there is some deeper, personal grudge against cops or firefighters.”
Not so. In fact, the recent moves to consider changes to pensions, staffing and benefits doesn’t mean anyone — including the mayor, city manager and police chief — hates cops and firefighters.
They have incredibly tough and important jobs. But the costs of running their departments responsibly must be part of the overall budget review. The city can and must make judicious reductions that save money while still protecting public safety.
Reach Yael T. Abouhalkah at 816-234-4887 or email him at email@example.com. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 tonight on KCPT, Channel 19.