It was touted as a career that provided job security and good pay but with risks, sometimes deadly risks.
Now, Phoenix police officers and firefighters are facing a new danger: layoffs, something most of them would have never guessed possible.
The draft budget had 144 firefighters and 286 patrol officers slated to get the axe in an effort to cut the department’s budgets by about 12 percent, or $80 million.
“Not in a million years, especially in Phoenix, would I have expected this,” said Officer Chris Fessler, who next week will complete his first year on the job patrolling the streets of Ahwatukee Foothills.
He was informed two weeks ago that he’s one of the officers slated for layoff.
And like all 1,301 municipal employees who could be cut, he has a story.
“I just got married, my first child is due in two months and I just bought a home,” said Fessler, 25.
His boss, Sgt. Bryant Rockwood, said Fessler is the type of officer Phoenix wants and needs. He pointed out how during a possible home invasion in Lakewood several months ago, Fessler chased an armed man and when the man attempted to pull his gun, Fessler tackled him, sending the gun flying and took the man into custody.
“I enjoy putting on the uniform and coming to work,” Fessler said.
The proposed layoffs mean that sergeants need to keep their officers focused on the tasks at hand as they go off to patrol.
“Your head has to be in the game,” is what Sgt. Rob Rodarme tells his officers who work the late night shift in Ahwatukee Foothills. He stresses officer safety for the five of six officers on his squad who are facing layoffs, and constantly tells them to call him if they are having problems focusing, so they can talk and refocus.
But who do the sergeants who also face demotion talk to, to help keep their morale up?
“We just lean on each other,” said Rockwood, who along with Rodarme, are slated to be demoted if the proposed budget continues as presented.
Along with the layoff of the newest officers, two lieutenants and 10 sergeants in the South Mountain Precinct will be knocked down a notch, partly to save money and partly because there won’t be as many officers to supervise.
Last week the Phoenix City Council approved extending a 2 percent city sales tax onto food, which would raise around $60 million a year. While that could go a long way to helping solve some of the budget issues for police and fire, there would still be layoffs of public safety employees and the proposed cuts for other city departments, from libraries to senior centers, would still take place.
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union that negotiates for officers, has informed its members that concessions will be needed due to the massive budget shortfall facing the city.
For rank and file like Fessler, any solution would be welcome.
“I’m open to anything. I’d rather take a pay cut than to lose my job,” said Fessler before heading out on patrol Monday morning.
While many Valley workers have faced furloughs, pay cuts and reduced overtime and benefits, many cops oppose any talk of pay cuts.
For some, it is because they are near retirement and any reduction in pay could affect their permanent retirement income. For others, the dangers of the job make the salaries paid to officers – about $50,000 annually for rookies – reasonable.
A budget hearing is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Pecos Park Community Center. After a series of public hearings the city management will refine the draft budget, and the City Council will approve the final budget in March.