As government ministries prepare for a year of austerity, the Interior Ministry has announced its plans for cutting its budget by 8.3 billion crowns. The result is what Minister Radek John warned would be a painful year for police and fire departments, which - in addition to facing pay cuts from the Labour Ministry - will also be stripped down to the bone financially. Many are concerned what the cuts will mean for safety and security.
The 8.3 billion being shaved off the Ministry of the Interior is less than what was originally demanded of it, but it will nonetheless have a powerful affect on the work of the ministry. The announcement by Minister Radek John that the police and fire departments would be shedding facilities, technologies and systems – all while losing 10% of their salaries – was peppered with words of regret, but as he told Czech Radio, it was the least harmful option.
“In order to keep the pay cuts at only 10%, then unfortunately we have to go -36% into investments and operational expenses. In other words, it’s going to be bloody. We’re protecting the policemen, the firemen, and the other employees of the ministry from even larger pay cuts. So the Interior Ministry cannot be expected to keep doing everything it used to do, it is only going to do what is required of it by law.”
Amid cancellation of new equipment and buildings, the minister says the safety and security services must rely on heroism – firemen will work wonders with older technology he says, while those who do heroic deeds will make more than they do today. Aside from unions, which are threatening strikes, there is general concern as to whether the police and fire services can function properly at the bare bones level, as shadow interior minister Jeroným Tejc of the Social Democratic Party told Radio Prague earlier today.
“If operational costs are to fall by up to 40% on an already tight budget, it can only mean a total collapse of the ability of the police to be out on the beat, to fill their petrol tanks, and to staff their stations in smaller towns. I think we cannot gamble on lives, and in my opinion cutting funds for rescue services at a time when we have massive floods every year is not only stupid, it’s evil.”
While there will be less money for services like village fire brigades, the ministry does not count on dismissing police or fire workers. Instead it relies on freezing recruitment and saving on the salaries of the 1,400 policemen who leave the department each year. The police recently went through a major recruitment push, and Mr John denies that they could be understaffed.
“The police have the highest number of officers per capita. They are going to have to change the way they work. Policemen are going to have to work more intensively. We are not understaffed, we are badly organised. There was already a year when 7,000 policemen left their jobs, and the police force survived it. And there is another side to this: if some policemen don’t leave, we have a problem, because we won’t have money.”
This presents the question of whether salary cuts and harder conditions will not create another such exodus – another variable in a plan that the opposition simply sees as generally too risky. While the Social Democrats would not agree with the cuts in the first place, MP Tejc says there are other ways to save money at the ministry.
“I think the most important thing to save on is the data box project and the central register – uneconomical projects that hundreds of millions to billions are spent on. The ministry should try to cancel bad contracts, like the rental of spa buildings which cost the state millions. So I think there are places to save, but massively cutting investments and, in particular, operations, can only mean putting public security at risk. I think every country has to say what its priorities are.”
The plan does also include the sale of buildings that the ministry no longer needs, including training centres and houses. An extensive “e-government” project is to be revamped. There will be no more luxuries, Minister John says. But all for the sake of a “light at the end of the tunnel” in 2012, when he envisions a leaner, more effective police force.
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