Budgeting for police
Jan. 28, 2010
By the Williston Selectboard
Williston Police Detective Michael Lavoie raised important issues in his Guest Column titled, “Williston needs police officers” (Jan. 14), as does the flyer the Williston Police Officers Association mailed to Williston residents.
The Selectboard considered these issues and believes Williston residents should have the information and facts the board used when deciding on the town budget to be presented to Williston voters and voted on at Town Meeting on March 2, 2010.
When preparing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Selectboard was faced with a number of difficult choices.
At the beginning of the budget process, Town Manager Rick McGuire was directed to submit a budget that had about the same level of expenditures as was approved for both the current year and last fiscal year. The budget submitted by the town manager fulfilled that directive. The board’s goal was to maintain the quality of core services provided to Williston residents while trying to avoid an increase in municipal taxes. This task was made particularly difficult because of decreases in revenue. In the end, the board approved a budget that will result in some reduction in services provided by the town. Despite this, the board’s long-term goal is to increase the number of employees in town departments as the demand for services increase.
Included in the list of reductions is one currently vacant patrol officer position. Despite this reduction, once the chief’s position is filled, the department will have one more uniformed position than it currently has and two more than it has had for most of the past year. Detective Lavoie has argued that the department should have more officers and this is true. The question is, can the town afford more officers? The Selectboard believes that the answer is unfortunately no, given the current economy.
It is important to understand that the officers could have saved the position but chose not to.
The officers were given an opportunity to accept a slightly smaller pay increase than had been negotiated before the current economic downturn. The officers were offered a 1 percent cost of living increase and a 2 percent “step” increase for a total of 3 percent. This offer by the town is equal to or greater than what other police departments in the region will be receiving and certainly larger than what many others in the private sector will receive, assuming they have a job. The officers insisted that they keep their negotiated 5 percent increase, as they have the legal right to do, even though the actual cost of living has not gone up this past year.
While it is clear the officers are unhappy with the board’s decision, they use inaccurate numbers to support their position. They state that the average patrol officer makes between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. In reality, the starting pay for a patrol officer with no experience is just over $40,000, not including overtime. Therefore the “average” officer is making close to $45,000 per year, again not including overtime. The highest paid officers, when adding in their overtime pay, are among the highest paid employees in town. Benefits including health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, long term disability and retirement add close to $26,000 to the cost for each officer and are an important part of the compensation package.
In their mailing the Williston Police Officers Association states that the officers work a 12-hour shift. This is true. It is a schedule that was set up several years ago by former Chief Jim Dimmick and has mostly been favored by the officers because it provides them with three-and-a-half days off, on average, per week. The 12-hour shift schedule has nothing to do with the appropriate number of officers.
Detective Lavoie also talks about a possible $100,000 surplus from his department for the current year. Last fiscal year the actual amount was about $42,000. It is too early in this fiscal year to make any projections of this nature. Keep in mind that all unspent funds go into the town’s fund balance, which is then used to reduce taxes in the next year. Also keep in mind that the reason for a possible surplus in the current year is that three positions had not yet been filled. One position was filled starting Jan. 18, 2010. Another position, the police chief, is currently vacant and will likely be filled before the end of this fiscal year. The third position is the one proposed to be eliminated.
Finally, Detective Lavoie lists things that will possibly be cut. This is not the prerogative of the police union but rather a management and/or policy decision. Detective Lavoie is correct, however, in stating that there will likely be some diminution of service as a result of the budget reductions. The board did have a discussion about what services might be affected by the budget but the board made no decisions as to what changes to make.
The board wishes to thank the officers for their hard work and recognizes the challenges faced by Williston officers. Unfortunately, small departments do present challenges, particularly with respect to offering opportunities for advancement. The solution is not to make every position a detective or sergeant or even increase the size of the department, although that might be necessary in the future as the community continues to grow.
For the moment, growth has slowed and the 15-member department already has four supervisory positions plus one detective. The town has provided a first-rate building, first-rate equipment, better-than-the-average pay for its officers and shares many of the same goals held by the officers. Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, the board and ultimately Williston voters need to reevaluate the time schedule for achieving organizational goals.
The Williston Selectboard is comprised of Chairman Terry Macaig and members Jeff Fehrs, Ted Kenney, Chris Roy and Judy Sassorossi.