Changes are being made in management policies at the police department in an effort to curb overtime spending.
Town Supervisor John Clarkson said the changes were being instituted after a consultant hired by the town released several reports to better understand how to rein in overtime use. The reports showed overtime was far greater in the police department, but highway and water department numbers were also high. The town spent about $1.4 million on overtime last year.
“This is not about the police officers, but improving management. The Town Board has been talking about, scrutinized and been concerned about overtime for more than a decade,” said Clarkson, adding that changes were being made throughout the town.
Last year, the police department — which currently has 37 officers — went over its overtime budget by $227,528. Dispatch came is second, overspending by $31,275, and highway followed with $19,734.
According to the consultant’s report released on the police department, 8,115.5 hours of overtime was used in 2013, resulting in payment of $443,487 to officers and sergeants. This equaled about $10,000 per week in overtime payments. The report noted the highest amount was paid to one patrol officer, who earned in excess of $40,000 last year, and “three sergeants were in the top five highest overtime earners.”
To address the issue, the 2015 work schedule for patrol officers has been reconfigured, and a headquarters sergeant is being shifted to the patrol unit.
“The new schedule both improves coverage and reduces overtime, because the higher need and weekend peak hours have more officers scheduled for duty. This means that when time off is given, it will be much less likely to require overtime to fulfill minimum staffing goals,” said Clarkson.
Sick time has also led to excess overtime. The police do not have a set number of sick days, but have unlimited time, which is contractual. According to the report, the average officer used 169.5 sick hours last year, which equals 21.2 days per officer. Each time someone calls in sick, the officer who covers the shift is paid overtime.
Clarkson said after subtracting for those injured in the line of duty and those on disability, the number drops down to 14.3 days.
“Even so, that’s still very concerning. Our goal is to get it down to about 10 days per year or less to address the problem,” he said.
The new policies also change the rules for time off and sick leave. Officers will now be required to put in for time off sooner, except in emergency situations, and a medical note will be required for those who are out sick for two or more days.
“Bethlehem has an unlimited sick leave policy for sworn officers, like many other police departments, because police work is hazardous and physically demanding duty. But we also want the BPD’s oversight of this benefit (to be) strong,” said Clarkson.
Monthly reports on townwide overtime usage will be given to the Town Board every two pay periods starting on Jan. 15. Clarkson said they are also looking for about a 20 to 30 percent reduction in overtime spending over the next year. For the police, the new schedule will be analyzed to see how it impacts overtime use.
The supervisor said all of the changes are ones that could be made outside of contractual negotiations, which are currently happening with both of the town’s police unions. Clarkson, Police Chief Louis Corsi and command staff were all said to be involved in the changes; however the presidents of both unions felt the policy changes would negatively effect negotiations.
In a joint statement, Bethlehem Police Supervisor’s Union President Stephen Kraz and Police Benevolent Association President Michael Berben said union members found it “troubling and disturbing” the supervisor did not respect the ground rules concerning negotiations.
Kraz felt the only way to appropriately reduce overtime was to hire more officers, adding the report did not take into account circumstances like an increase in police investigations in certain years, additional emergency calls and inclement weather. However, portions of the report were redacted so as to not disclose contractual information currently being negotiated.
“If we don’t hire more police officers to address the growing nature of this town, the only result is to cut services, and that’s the question the taxpayers have to ask themselves,” said Kraz. “Are they willing to cut the level of service they receive from the police department? And if they are, are they willing to maintain that level of service? The growing population is not considered.”
The two union presidents described officers missing meal breaks, investigations that are not appropriately followed-through with and calls from dispatch that seem to never end.
“We have a community policing model we are proud to uphold, but some of the nature of the calls require attention and time. And when the phone keeps ringing, sometimes you’re not afforded the time and the extra five minutes needed to resolve an issue,” said Berben.
Clarkson said he thinks the new schedule would help provide better coverage during peak periods, so some of these issues could be addressed. However, Berben and Kraz said the shift in scheduling would impact the personal lives and families of officers.
“Our membership has been required to work excessive overtime as a result of the shortage in staffing. It has had a detrimental impact on employee morale, officer health issues and family issues,” said Kraz.
The pair said the types of calls officers respond to leads to increased stress and a greater likelihood of getting sick or injured on the job than the average employee. That is part of the reason officers do not have a set number of sick days.
Both unions want to see staffing restored to at least 44 sworn officers, citing a 2007 report by the state Division of Criminal Justices Services that recommended hiring at least six additional patrol officers. In 2008, the consultant’s report showed staffing of sworn officers at 41, but police records have the number at 44.
Clarkson argued the 2007 report is out-of-date and that other police departments, like Guilderland, are working at similar staffing levels. He said it would cost an additional $1 million a year to hire seven more officers, and at this point he is not willing to recommend the hiring of any more officers.
“We’re trying to better utilize the workforce we have. No one is upsizing public sector resources. Everyone is downsizing,” said Clarkson.
Both union presidents claimed the town was unwilling to hire more officers so it could save money on benefits by using overtime.
“The town has saved money by doing that because the increased overtime the officers have picked up has allowed the town to not hire the bodies and pay employee benefits,” said Kraz.
Clarkson said “real world comparisons” need to be made in order to come up with the appropriate solutions.
Corsi was unable to be reached for comment, but information provided by the department contributed to this report.