You have probably noticed signs throughout town stating, “We Support Bethlehem Police.” That is a sentiment shared by the Town Board and everyone throughout our community.
Citizens should understand that the signs are largely driven by the police unions’ displeasure with the town’s efforts to reign in overtime costs. Collective bargaining negotiations cannot be carried out in public, but at the same time it is important for the public to understand the issues underlying the current tensions and have the facts.
There is no inconsistency between valuing a vital service like policing, the people who serve, and also ensuring that service is efficiently and effectively provided. That is our responsibility as town board members. We were elected to balance service needs with the tax burden. The Town Board certainly does not relish a public labor dispute with the police unions, but we would be derelict in our duties to the taxpayers if we ignored major cost areas like out of control overtime spending.
Overtime is a major cost for the BPD, totaling $608,000 last year. Contrary to some recent assertions, the overtime problem is not caused by short staffing. The repeated claim that the force has been cut from 44 to 37 officers simply isn’t correct. BPD has been budgeted at 37 sworn officers for three years. No cuts are taking place or envisioned. Even at the high point for the BPD in 2007-08, there were only 41 sworn officers serving, and overtime was just as high back then. In fact, the data shows that BPD overtime costs have usually been higher when there have been more officers on the force. Police overtime has been an unresolved issue for years, with expenditures far exceeding budget in each of the past 10 years, usually by between 20 to 50 percent. And Bethlehem’s police overtime is high by all objective industry measures.
According to the “Benchmark Cities Survey” (designed in 1997 by a group of police chiefs), an average police department overtime should be equal to 3.5 percent of regular pay. The BPD’s overtime is consistently three times that amount.
A Citizen’s Budget Committee in 2012 compared the BPD to peer departments in similar New York state suburban communities and found that BPD’s overtime was by far the highest. Overtime in the BPD has exceeded Guilderland’s by 27 percent, whereas Guilderland is larger in area, population, and calls for service, and is somewhat more urban in character.
In the Empire Center’s report “What they Make 2013-14,” an independent review of local payrolls (including overtime), Bethlehem Police were ranked first, with the highest average pay of any town in the Capital District ($93,561); 36 percent above the Capital District average for towns, and also higher than police/fire salaries in any cities within the region (including Albany, Schenectady and Troy). This higher average salary was largely driven by overtime.
In 2014, eight of the top ten earners overall in Bethlehem were police officers, with the top four (all police sergeants and officers) ranging from $113,692 to $136,259. In 2013, nine of the top ten overtime earners were police, with the top earner (a police sergeant) making $55,138 in overtime and total earnings of $142,348.
Last fall the town hired a consultant to assist with collective bargaining. His report found several obvious policy issues driving the consistently high levels of BPD overtime, including scheduling that did not match service needs, a lack of controls and monitoring of overtime, and time off practices that often resulted in half of many shifts being covered by overtime, particularly on the weekends. Over the years a practice arose (never approved by any town board) that up to two police officers could take off a shift at any time, regardless of how it affected patrol coverage or caused overtime. BPD also has unlimited sick time, and in 2013 had an average of 18.8 sick days per officer (not counting line of duty injuries).
Last year we worked with the chief to change some of these policies that had been driving high overtime for years. While those efforts have already resulted in significant reductions in overtime (20-30 percent), they have also caused the recent tensions with the police unions.
We recognize policing is unpredictable, and overtime is of course necessary. It is our goal, however, to see BPD overtime in a reasonable range consistent with general policing standards. We also want our officers to be able to attend family events and special occasions. Overtime is a stressor for many employees, and we’re as concerned about overworked employees as we would be about overtaxed residents.
Municipalities in this state are under constant fiscal pressure. By carefully managing the finances of every town department, including the BPD, it is our goal to continue the levels of service that citizens of Bethlehem have come to expect.
Jeffrey Kuhn is a member of the Bethlehem Town Board and Bethlehem Democratic Committee Chairman.
The town’s two police unions have been given the opportunity to respond to this guest commentary. The same space will be provided in next week’s edition of The Spotlight.