Members of the Lawton police and fire unions want to see some hard figures on projected revenues before they agree to actions to cut expenditures in their departments.
Most of the City of Lawton’s general employees are on furlough today, the first of two unpaid days they will take this fiscal year (the second will be June 12) to trim expenses going into the fiscal year that begins July 1. City administrators have said the city expects to save about $350,000 (revised from earlier projections of $400,000) if all city employees take two days of furlough for the remainder of the fiscal year. The savings from just general employees is about $100,000 per day; police and firefighters, who have contracts, did not agree to furlough.
The furlough is among the cost-saving measures that city administrators are enacting in the final weeks of the current fiscal year to increase revenues available in the 2020-2021 fiscal year that begins July 1. City Manager Michael Cleghorn told City Council members at budget workshops that city administrators expect severe drops in sales tax and water revenue, the top two funding sources for city operations, and city administrators are cutting expenditures now and in the new fiscal year in anticipation.
In addition to the two furlough days in the current fiscal year, Cleghorn said the 2020-2021 preliminary budget was calculated with 12 more furlough days (one per month), a figure that could be adjusted depending on revenues.
Sgt. Clay Houseman, president of the International Union of Police Officers, Local 24, said that uncertainty about revenues is the reason police officers didn’t agree to furloughs for this fiscal year. He said city officials haven’t asked the union about furlough days in the 2020-2021 fiscal year; city and union representatives are working on that contract.
Houseman and Lt. Brian Shotts, union vice president, said members want to see hard numbers on budget projections before making a decision that will affect police officers and public safety. But, that doesn’t mean the union isn’t open to negotiating the issue, Houseman said.
“The Lawton Police Officers Association is willing to discuss other measures to offset shortfalls,” Houseman said. “The Lawton Police Officers Association would like to review these numbers with city officials as they come in.”
Houseman and Shotts said there are many unknowns in revenues in the coming year, noting, for example, the city won’t know the effects of revenue from April business activities until June (sales tax revenues come in two months after the business activities that produced them). They said Gov. Kevin Stitt also announced this week the State of Oklahoma has established a new digital platform that will allow municipalities to seek reimbursement for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, something Shotts said would help offset Lawton’s revenue loss.
Houseman said while March sales tax receipts were down 9 percent, they had been up significantly before then. And, while businesses were closed in March and April, some began opening up just as residents began receiving their federal stimulus payments. The men said it is possible that will produce a spike in sales tax revenues in June (from April sales) and July (from May sales).
“As a union, we don’t want to see any knee-jerk reactions,” Houseman said, of inducing deep budget cuts before city officials even know if they are necessary.
That’s why union members want to see how sales tax revenues come in before making a decision about cutting the police department budget, he said, calling the issue one of public safety that could lead to having fewer officers on the street.
“We’d rather wait to look at it,” he said, of the potential impact on city finances, adding that the Lawton Police Officers Association believes “the safety of each and every citizen far outweigh any decision to furlough officers at this time.”
Lt. Jayson Davis, president of the Lawton Firefighters Association (Local 1882), said firefighters were willing to talk — and did come to the table — about furlough days, but had concerns about the effect that fewer firefighters would have on operations. Firefighters currently have a six-year contract (which includes the current fiscal year) that was approved by the City Council in January.
“We tried to save the city the same amount of money without furloughing,” he said. “If we furlough, one of two things can or will happen: first, the city would furlough us and then potentially use overtime to fill the spot, which costs more money. Or, second, we furlough and then don’t backfill the spots, which causes us to run short on manning and fire coverage.
“This means shutting fire trucks down and maybe stations, which is a huge safety concern for the public and the firefighters on the trucks.”
Davis said firefighters still are working with city officials on budget concerns. And, like police officers, firefighters want solid numbers from sales tax revenues.
“We continue to work with the city on their budget concerns and plan to return to the table to talk after they get the April sales tax numbers back in mid-June, so we can better understand the situation,” he said, adding that while it would be Fire Chief Raanon Adams’ responsibility to assess budget issues and suggest ways to trim the fire department’s budget, “we’re available to discuss possible operational efficiencies.”
Davis said the firefighters contract is designed to prevent furloughs of fire personnel, something he said allows the department to maintain maximum public safety and firefighter experience in the city’s stations. And, safety remains a guiding factor in firefighter and union decisions, he said.