Lynnwood facing millions more in budget cuts, more losses in public safety

LYNNWOOD — The anxiety over cuts to public safety in Lynnwood might sound familiar.

Last year, the city considered laying off a third of its police officers and firefighters. That didn’t happen, but another round of cuts is predicted as the city looks to shear millions from the budget by the end of 2012.

Mayor Don Gough says his focus is keeping the city out of the hole. Every department is hurting, and more layoffs are likely, he said.

A mid-year financial review estimated the city is on track for a $3.5 million revenue shortfall by the end of 2012.

Another $1.9 million in cuts will be needed to ensure the city’s financial future, Gough said. It’s not clear how those cuts will be spread out. The city’s operating budget for 2011 was $48.4 million. Of that, $17.3 million pays for the police department.

Meanwhile, police officers are jumping ship, and the city isn’t replacing them.

Police administrators and some on the City Council say Gough is playing politics and ignoring requests to hire cops. They say the city could end up with a critical public safety problem. Gough says the cops are just one piece of the bigger budget puzzle.

“I have staffing problems in a whole bunch of areas in the city, not just there,” he said.

Nearly a quarter of Lynnwood’s cops have left in the past year.

Nine police officers left before Jan. 1, expecting layoffs, Police Chief Steve Jensen said.

The understanding, Jensen said, was that if the department accepted losing those positions, there would be no more staffing cuts. The department didn’t foresee an exodus from the force.

By the end of July, another nine officers had either left Lynnwood or started applying for jobs elsewhere. Jensen estimates that the department will wind up with about 60 officers. There were 80 in 2009.

“We’re just decimated now,” he said.

Officers who leave for other departments might find more opportunities to move up and to get specialty assignments, he said. In Lynnwood, specialty team assignments are disappearing as officers are sent back on patrol to cover 911 calls.

Meanwhile, Lynnwood officers in 2010 spent roughly 2,200 work hours reviewing videos of possible violations caught by traffic-enforcement cameras. That’s the equivalent of a full-time police officer.

Except for lateral hires, Lynnwood pays for every new officer to be trained and commissioned. City Councilman Jim Smith figures it takes $150,000 and more than a year to get a candidate through training and into a squad car.

He estimates that the city lost millions of dollars in the training and education it invested in officers who left.

Cops are leaving Lynnwood for two reasons: a lack of job security and a poor working environment for police officers, Guild President Mark Brinkman said. Infighting and politics among the city’s leaders make many officers feel they might be better off elsewhere, he said.

“It’s just kind of a toxic environment, a negative environment, and people are just kind of fed up with it,” he said.

The guild has filed a grievance and is waiting for the mayor’s response, Brinkman said. If the matter isn’t resolved, the grievance could go to binding arbitration.

Gough declined to comment on the grievance.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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