The battle between the Town of Bethlehem and its two police unions over overtime pay and staffing levels is reaching a boiling point, and it needs to end with a compromise.
Town Supervisor John Clarkson said he wants to see the amount of overtime and sick days being used by the police department to decrease, while the heads of Bethlehem’s Police Supervisor’s Union and Police Benevolent Association said they want to increase the number of officers so the department can better serve the community.
Each side has a valid point. According to a consultant’s report commissioned by the town, Bethlehem spent nearly $1.4 million in excess overtime over all of its departments in 2013. The police department had the highest amount by a wide margin at more than $227,000. The town can’t be expected to spend that extra amount of money on overtime every year. It’s not sustainable.
On the other hand, the reason why the police department has logged so much overtime is because they are simply short staffed. When someone goes out on sick leave, another officer must be called in to act as relief. And with the volume of calls the police department receives in a day, those officers are being pushed to their limits both physically and mentally, which leads to more sick time. A more personal approach may be needed to see the other side, perhaps by shadowing an officer.
Clarkson claims that the town simply doesn’t have the funds to hire seven more police officers, which is what the two police unions are asking for. Yet, the town is implementing new measures next year to cut back on overtime pay by asking officers to put in for vacation days sooner, and those who need more than one day of sick leave must get a note from their doctor. These changes weren’t negotiated with the unions, since they are seen as managerial issues.
We feel there needs to be a compromise between the two sides. If Clarkson doesn’t think the town can hire seven new officers because it would cost too much, a smaller number of new hires should be granted to bridge the gap. The amount of money paid in excess overtime claims in 2013 alone could go to pay for one new officer. Two or three new officers would help more.
At the same time, the police unions need to understand that the days of free-spending government are over in Bethlehem and in most other municipalities. The town has to live within its means and cut costs wherever it can. If that means not getting what they want right now, then the police unions — like everyone else — will have to do the best they can.
It’s a tough situation for both sides to be in, but this is where compromise comes into play. If you can’t get everything you want, you should at least find a solution where everyone gets something.