(STMW) – On Recession Road, perhaps the most startling sign so far has been “Police Exit Here.”

Street officers have long been regarded as untouchable during municipal cutbacks. But after several years of furloughs, layoffs and decreased revenue, some of the hefty police payrolls are suddenly within reach of city budgeting shears.

In the last month, both Aurora and Naperville proposed reducing the number of officers on the street. Aurora city officials told police they will have to cut more than 20 officers without further union concessions, sparking a large march through city streets Tuesday night. In Naperville, the city proposed eliminating the jobs of seven officers.

It’s a drama being played out across the suburbs. At least 15 police departments in the Chicagoland area have downsized through layoffs in recent years.

Patrick O’Connor, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said at least 300 cops have been laid off statewide — and that’s the tip of the iceberg because many departments have eliminated positions and haven’t filled vacancies.

“A community that historically had five cars on the street will have four or three cars,” said O’Connor, chief of the Moraine Valley Community College Police Department and a former chief in several suburbs. “You will see a rise in response times for non-emergency calls.”

O’Connor said suburbs have cut services in other areas and now they’ve moved to public safety, once considered a “sacred cow.”

“I’ve never seen this in my life,” he said.

City asks concessions

The most dramatic of the local layoff battles is in Aurora, where the city’s budget troubles, and their potential impact on police, have become public. Facing an $18 million deficit for 2011, the city has asked all of its employees to give up 10 percent of their salaries, including the police. Without these concessions, city leaders have said, more than 20 street officers may be laid off.

Both Aurora police unions — the Association of Professional Police Officers, which represents rank and file officers, and the Aurora Sergeants Association, which represents sergeants, commanders and lieutenants — have said they will not discuss concessions this year.

The disagreement has been publicly addressed by both sides. The unions believe the city has not done enough to curb spending after facing down a $19 million deficit last year, while city officials say they have no choice but to cut salaries or employees, since more than 80 percent of the general fund budget goes to personnel costs.

Cops spots unfilled

Aurora is the second-largest municipal police department in the state with 236 sworn officers. And while local medium-size departments have avoided layoffs, some have still reduced the number of officers on the street.

Departments in Oswego and Yorkville, as well as Kane and Kendall counties, have avoided laying off police officers so far, in part by not filling open spots.

In Yorkville, officials applied for a federal grant to fund four officers for the 2011-12 fiscal year. But the city was turned down, so those four spots for police officers remain unfilled. In total, Yorkville is down eight police officers, Chief Richard Hart said.

Oswego is down five officers since late 2008, according to Chief Dwight Baird. The department has had to find other creative places to save. When it got $30,000 to buy new squads, the department found three slightly used squads from another department that had downsized.

In Kendall County, the sheriff’s office has declined to hire new deputies. Sheriff Richard Randall said his office had one new hire last year, but that person was injured after two days on the job and will not return. For the 2011 fiscal year, that puts the department down by about nine deputies.

Likewise, Kane County has reduced the number of sworn officers by 10 in the last two years. But Sheriff Pat Perez said he tried to keep the total street officers consistent by reducing the number of administrative lieutenants and commanders.

“I had to take a hard look at what’s going to have bigger impact for the public — administrators or the guys on the street going call to call,” Perez said. “It was a no-brainer.”

In Sandwich and Plano, some police positions are frozen. Sandwich Interim Chief Bill King said one sergeant’s position has not been filled after the officer was out of work on disability, leaving the city with two sergeants instead of three.

In Plano, three full-time officer positions were vacated and have not been filled, according to Chief Steve Eaves. Also, three part-time officers retired. For now, one of those three openings for a part-time officer will be filled, Eaves said.

Eaves added that expenses like new equipment will have to wait.

“We’re stretching it out as much as we can,” he said. “There are some things we can’t do without. The big thing is trying to get through this rough time.”

Cutting elsewhere

Of course, even cities that avoided officer layoffs made cuts elsewhere.

“We’ve been able to keep personnel up and that’s most important as far as I’m concerned,” Sugar Grove Police Chief Brad Sauer said.

Sauer said there have been other cuts in the department, but none that he could name specifically.

Batavia has not laid off police officers this year and doesn’t have plans to do so next year, said Chief Gary Schira. The department did lay off a full-time community services officer in 2008, which was a non-sworn position.

“We’ve certainly cut down on non-essential services — that’s how weren’t making ends meet,” Schira said. “The real key to averting layoffs is union concessions citywide as well as (unions) not demanding salary increases.”

The city of Geneva did not lay off police officers in 2010 and does not plan to next year, said assistant city administrator Stephanie Dawkins.

“But we also haven’t started the next budget,” Dawkins said.

Montgomery has not had to lay off officers, but the village is in talks with the police union there to draft a new contract, said Village Manager Anne Marie Gaura.

Jeopardizing safety?

These cuts have spurred a public reaction. In Aurora, hundreds of police union members and supporters marched on City Hall last Tuesday, rallying outside a City Council meeting. APPO President Dave Schmidt spoke to the council, saying that reducing the police force jeopardizes the low crime rate the APD has helped achieve.

“To keep our city safe, we must have enough officers on the street,” Schmidt said.

Several area residents have spoken out in favor of police, including property managers and employees of the Aurora Housing Authority. June Edlund of Naperville, who manages a far East Side condominium complex, pleaded with aldermen Tuesday night.

“You can’t cut your way to a safer city,” she said of potential layoffs.

FOP reacts

Residents are not the only ones voicing concerns about reduced staff.

“We are concerned about our officers and their safety — as well as the public. In a lot of these places, there have been complaints about delays in officers responding,” said Tamara Cummings, an attorney for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, which represents cops in about 460 agencies across the state.

Cummings said her union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Naperville. Layoffs weren’t discussed during 18 months of negotiations between the union and Naperville over wages and health insurance, Cummings said. The layoffs were announced about a week after those issues were settled, she said.

“They have $20 million in the general fund,” she said. “They’re not broke. They always preach that public safety is of utmost importance. Now for them to lay off officers is appalling to me.”

But Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger said the city faces a projected $5 million budget deficit next year. Officials don’t want to use the $20 million general fund balance for a “one-time fix,” Krieger said.

“Next year, you’re looking at the same problem again,” he said, adding that the city is still safe — even with the police cuts.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)