The Lakeland Fire Department wants $7.2 million to build a new fire station on U.S. Highway 98 north of I-4 and the Lakeland Police Department is seeking about $5.3 million to hire 31 new police officers over the next three years.
Both tentative funding requests for fiscal year 2023, which begins Oct. 1, surfaced today during the Lakeland City Commission’s annual two-day strategic planning session at the RP Funding Center.
Lakeland Fire Chief Doug Riley told the commission that LFD’s seven fire stations handled 29,053 calls in 2021, a 10% increase from the previous year with response times increasing in the rapidly growing northeast and southwest reaches of the city.
The area north of I-4 is served by Lakeland Fire Department Station 3, which is south of the interstate at Florida Avenue and Bella Vista Street. Response times are bad and getting worse, Riley said, with response times of 15 minutes or more in some areas north of I-4.
LFD Station 3 is the busiest of the city’s seven fire houses, handling 7,868 calls last year, a 26.6% increase, he said, with 3,307 of the calls coming from north of I-4.
Riley presented two options — relocating station 3 to a “more central location (that) decreases response time to north Lakeland” or spending at least $1.5 million for a 1.5- to 2-acre parcel for an eighth station on U.S. 98N.
The station 8 proposal also seeks $2.2 million for a two-bay station, $160,000 in furnishings, $880,000 for a new fire engine and equipment and $1.2 million in salaries for 12 additional firefighters/EMTs.
The two-year funding request earmarks $5.9 million for next year and $1.3 million for 2024. The new station could include space “if at all possible” for a Lakeland Police Department substation, Riley said.
Despite Southwest Lakeland’s rapid growth, LFD is recommending the city continue its mutual aid agreement with Polk County Fire Rescue to help cover the area.
Riley said there were 183 calls in 2021 from the area south of Lakeland Linder International Airport.
“We don’t see or anticipate enough growth” now for a LFD station in Southwest Lakeland, he said, suggesting commissioners negotiate “a more longterm contract” with the county because “just like us, they’re getting busier al the time.”
“The day may come,” Riley said, when an LFD station is needed in Southwest Lakeland “the way that area is growing” but the city is “very comfortable with our partnership with Polk County Fire Rescue,” Riley said.
Commissioner Bill Read said the city can “save a lot of money” by locating new fire stations on city-owned lands, such as parks.
Noting Lakeland recently purchased 117 acres for a park in Southwest Lakeland, he said, “I’m sure we could find 2 acres there” and “at least have a spot there for the future.”
Read said the city has park land north of I-4 at Douglas H. Cook Park, Baldwin Park and 20 acres at Carpenter’s Home.
City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said not all park spaces, such as Cook Park, are appropriate for a fire station but siting fire houses on city-owned land is the standard ideal.
Commissioners Mike Musick and Phillip Walker said they support adding an eighth station rather than relocating station 3.
“We need to add another station to the north,” Musick said. “We really got to get into this conversation. It’s late. And it’s not moving a station — it is adding a station. We’ve got to do some talking.”
Walker said, “A station is needed in north Lakeland but to just forego one, to replace one, I don’t think it is the route we take,” suggesting the city present voters with “an initiative” that clearly states, “This is what we need to have done and we need you to buy into it.”
Sherrouse was uncertain “if we need an initiative or not,” calling the proposal “a decision for the budget” to be discussed through the spring and summer.
Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia said the LPD has not hired new “operational” officers since 2017 despite being undermanned because it had unfilled vacancies.
“We could not ask for more on the plate” until all positions were staffed, which they now are. “Lakeland led the state in recruiting police officers” and is now fully staffed at the 254 officers it is budgeted for.
Including school resource officers, LPD has 2.17 officers per 1,000 residents, Garcia said. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recommends 2.59 officers per 1,000 residents, he said.
Garcia said by FDLE’s calculations, Lakeland has “a 35 officer per-capita deficit.” By U.S. Department of Justice standards, LPD is short 26 police officers and, according to police resources consultant Timothy Freesmeyer, the city should have 29 more officers, he said.
“Costs of services have increased, as you might expect,” Garcia said, noting most 911 calls require at least two units to respond with officers increasingly locked into emergency response “obligated time” with little “unobligated time” for “the good stuff we do compared to the mandatory stuff.”
“The population is growing but (LPD’s staffing) remains the same” as it was five years ago, he said. “We see the same rooftops everybody else sees going up” in southwest and northeast Lakeland. “We certainly see those two quadrants of town as the biggest impact on manpower moving froward.”
LPD presented commissioners with three options spanning the next three years.
Under Option A, which Garcia said he favors, the city would hire 19 officers, including 12 for patrol, one for traffic, one detective, one homeless liaison, one school resource officer, two neighborhood liaisons, one sergeant for LPD’s field training program and one lieutenant for the neighborhood liaison program in 2023.
This plan would cost an estimated $3.68 million in next year’s budget and about $2.285 million a year in recurring expenses.
Option A also calls for $800,000 to hire five additional officers in 2024 and $800,000 to more five more in 2025.
Under Option B, LPD would hire 12 officers, including eight for patrol, one field training program sergeant and one neighborhood liaison program lieutenant in 2023.
This plan would cost $2.54 million in next year’s budget and $1.57 million in recurring expenses.
Option B seeks $1.29 million to hire eight officers in 2024 and $1.44 million to hire nine officers in 2025,
Under Option C, LPD would hire 10 officers, including eight for patrol. This plan would cost $2.165 million in next year’s budget and generate $1.359 million in annual expenses.
Option C seeks $1.44 million to hire nine officers in 2024 and $1.6 million to hire 10 officers in 2025.
Sherrouse said the LFD and LPD presentations “deviated a little” from the strategic planning session’s format by discussing “budgetary impacts” of specific requests being formulated for next year’s budget.
Read said he was grateful for the heads up and doesn’t see any contention in ensuring the city’s first-responders get what they need from the commission.
“If we need a fire station, we need to budget it. If need more police, we need to budget it,” Read said.
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