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Cops and Trustees’ Last-Minute Budget Talks

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by Claire Walla

Perhaps no department in the town of Southampton has been as fiercely scrutinized during this year’s budget process as the Southampton Town Police Department. Though it’s still unknown how deep into the red the department’s overtime budget will be before the end of this fiscal year, it’s already seen a deficit in overtime spending that’s topped $250,000.

What’s more, Southampton Town Police Chief Bill Wilkinson has been tasked with streamlining the department, reducing current staffing levels from 96 to 90 officers.

While he’s been charged with finding a solution for his department’s current deficit, he also faces some backlash to his proposed plan to trim his department — which, he argues, would help alleviate the issues with the current deficit. The chief’s plan hinges on introducing new technology into the force.

“The technology program is critical,” Wilkinson told Southampton Town Board members at a town hall work session on Tuesday, November 15. “We’re looking to streamline and flatten out the command structure [of the police department] — that’s dependent on having the technology project.”

According to Wilkinson’s estimates, a standard Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) arrest typically requires officers to take roughly four to five hours to process the paperwork associated with it. With the proposed technology project — an automated system that would cut down on the amount of paper work and data entry officers are now responsible for — he said the time it takes to process a DWI would be cut in half.

Among town board members, there seemed to be few arguments with the benefits of the program. However, Councilman Jim Malone said he wondered whether the project, at roughly $700,000, would be too expensive to implement in this economic climate.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “With the state of economics being what they are, we’re trying to get by year to year… [The technology project] is an investment, but it carries a cost.”

For Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, the decision of whether or not to invest in new technology is not a simple matter deciding whether or not to pay for a $700,000 project. “The balancing act is: do we invest in the technology, or do we invest in more police officers?” she asked rhetorically.

Because if the town decides not to invest in the new technology, she pointed out that the police force would be short-staffed and would not be able to function adequately — without dipping into its overtime funds.


TRUSTEES


After several meetings with town board members regarding their proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, the Southampton Town Trustees finally seemed to come to an understanding with the board regarding how much money each entity is willing to spend to keep the trustees in operation.

The trustees’ ultimately requested permission to put up a bond measure for $250,000 that would be met with a financial contribution from the town of $150,000.

This money would be put toward a series of four projects that trustees said are of high priority. The first and most important project would be to build a new structure to replace the existing storage facility on Jackson Avenue in Hampton Bays ($275,000). Additionally, the trustees need $15,000 to fix the Wooley Pond bulkhead, $200,000 for the Old Fort Pond dock, and $200,000 for the Baycrest Avenue dock

While Councilman Jim Malone noted that the total cost of these projects comes out to $690,000 and the trustees are asking for $400,000 in funds, Trustee Eric Schultz noted that the trustees would simply get through as many projects as they could before their funding ran out.

“I support the bonding,” Malone finally commented.

Additionally, the trustees asked to keep the services of attorney Joe Lombardo, who they said is well-versed in patent law and was instrumental in helping the trustees successfully defend their rights against implementing a saltwater fishing license in the town of Southampton. His has been written out of the supervisor’s tentative budget.

“If you decide not to keep him,” Schultz added, “We request that we have someone with the same amount of time dedicated to us.”

Finally, the trustees argued that they needed the services of a marine maintenance supervisor. The position is currently vacant due to retirement. And in order to save costs, the trustees proposed a 50/50 deal, in which they would pay half of this person’s salary, which they estimated would total $75,000.

Southampton: Top Cop Aims To Trim Operations

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By Claire Walla


Southampton Town Police Chief Bill Wilson admitted last Friday, November 4 that his department has, in fact, spent $225,000 more than its allotted overtime funds due primarily to changes in the department that he implemented when he took office last May.

However, he said, those costs don’t represent the full story.

Though the overtime budget is currently in the red, Chief Wilson said he has a vision for the department that will not only solve the overtime dilemma, but will bring more financial stability for the police department for the years to come.

“I think we can agree that the Southampton Town Police Department, operationally, has been on an austerity budget for quite some time,” Wilson began. “In looking at the long-term health and longevity of the police department over the next 20 years, I was tasked with finding significant savings [when appointed as police chief ].”

For fiscal year 2012, that total is $1.5 million, which is currently built into the supervisor’s Preliminary Budget. That cost savings is laid-out in a plan to trim the police department by eight members, using a stipulation in all officers’ contracts with the town that allows town officials to force officers who have reached 20 years of service into retirement. (Under Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s plan, officers who have 25 years of service or more will be affected.)

While Southampton Town Comptroller Tamara Wright recently said this formula has been complicated by the fact that fire service has now been thrown into the mix of what constitutes an officers’ employment with the town — the number of officers now eligible for retirement has risen to 12 — the chief maintains that trimming his staff in this way is the most effective for the department.

“There has been some concern with the department’s ability to operate with a certain amount of ‘brain drain,’” he said, referring to the fact that those forced into retirement would be the town’s senior officers with the most experience.

“We have talented people in those positions,” he continued, “But we have talented people waiting to fill those positions. So, at no time would public safety be jeopardized.”

He went on to explain that part of his reorganization would be removing superior officers from positions that he said could easily be “civilianized.” Wilson said that the lieutenant currently responsible for the office of emergency management — “an expert in the field” — has agreed to come back to the department after his retirement next August on a part-time or consultant basis in order to train a “civilian” to do the job.

Similarly, the chief said that a current sergeant interested in taking the town’s retirement incentive has agreed to come back to the department to work in an administrative, civilian position.

“In doing so, that would allow me to be able to flatten out the current command structure,” Wilson commented.

His goal, as he has explained it, is to get more uniformed officers out of the office and onto the streets.

In speaking to the longevity of the department, Wilson also told town board members that he hopes to make better use of technology to streamline procedures within the department that, as of now, are “archaic.” After adding that he has been asked to trim current staffing levels down to 90 (he said there were 96 when he first took command), operations will have to be streamlined.

That cannot be done “without the automization of a substantial amount of the services we perform — filling out paperwork, records management, processing evidence,” he added.

In one sense, Wilson continued, overtime numbers increase “because of the amount of uncommitted officer time — there is a report generated for every single thing that we do.”

But cutting back on those reports is not an option.

“One of the primary purposes of law enforcement is documentation,” Wilson said. “It’s just the way that the documentation is done that takes up time.”

The board went into executive session to discuss the finer details of Wilson’s plan regarding which specific staff members he proposes moving to higher positions to fill the spots of those expected to take retirement or be forced into retirement. However, though the board discussed Wilson’s plan for reorganizing his staff, Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst noted that she would be continuing discussion with the department’s two main unions: the Superior Officers’ Association (SOA) and the Police (PBA).

Should an agreement be reached or should the board decide not to force officers into retirement, Wilson noted that it would affect his carefully mapped out plan for a reorganization that would result in $1.5 million in savings.

Pointing to the fact that the new measurement for retirement eligibility at 25 years now includes 12 officers instead of eight, Councilman Jim Malone said that decreasing the department by 12 officers “is not sustainable,” adding that that would mark a drop-off of nearly 50 percent.

As discussions continue about the future of the town’s police department, Malone said he wanted to see more options than the what’s currently laid-out in the Preliminary Budget (retiring those who have accumulated 25 years of service).

“While it’s a viable choice, the choice of one is not really a choice in my mind,” he said. “There’s got to be a contingency plan.”

Town Cops Bust OT By $225,000

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By Claire Walla

Much to the surprise of all members of the Southampton Town board, the Southampton Town Police Department has already spent $225,000 more than was allotted in its 2011 overtime budget — and it continues to accrue more debt.

At a town board work session held last Friday, October 28 the board met with Lieutenant Bob Pearce, Deputy Town Comptroller Kathy Scott and Town Management Services Administrator Russell Kratoville to discuss how the police department managed to run such a high deficit. Police Chief Bill Wilson was unavailable last week, though he is scheduled to address the issue again at this Friday’s work session, November 4.

According to Pearce, there are several factors for the overtime shortage. Not only was the department overworked in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, he said a recent shortage of staff has contributed to the need to dip into overtime. The department has lost four officers, bringing its force down to 92, and there are currently eight officers who are out, six of whom are being replaced in their absence.

Councilman Chris Nuzzi demanded to know why, from 2008 through 2011, when there wasn’t a huge variance in the number of police officers, “there is a huge variance in overtime,” he said. “I think drilling down to the details is necessary to see how these numbers shifted.”

Pearce further explained that when Chief Wilson joined the town he increased the number of sectors with 24-hour patrol from seven to eight, adding an additional patrol car for the Flanders/Riverside area, which Pearce said studies have showed has a relatively high rate of crime and warrants 24-hour patrol.

Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said that it’s important to maintain eight sectors of patrol.

“We saw a very active season this year and there was a commensurate rise in crime activity that needed to be investigated,” she said.

For that reason, Throne-Holst said that the rise in costs came from the detective division.

According to figures read off by Russel Kratoville, the detective division generated 91 hours of overtime in July, 170 hours in August, 120 in September and 150 hours during the first 15 days of October.

For Nuzzi, the crux of the issue goes beyond the reasons why the department has accrued this debt, he is concerned with the town’s immediate dilemma. With two months left in this fiscal year, he emphasized the fact that there is currently a zero in the budget line for the department’s overtime pay.

“How are we going to be able to shift resources around to deal with this?” he asked.

The board had previously authorized shifting $175,000 from the department’s retirement fund to off-set this deficit, but that was before it was revealed that these overtime costs are rising.

“I just want to add that I felt as though I was caught,” Councilwoman Nancy Graboski said. “I didn’t know that we were in this position in the first place. I would have felt a whole lot better about authorizing the money if I had known prior to that — or if we had had something in the way of advisory — that there was no more money left.”

Southampton Town Tightens 2012 Budget

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ATH

By Claire Walla


Elements of the 2012 tentative budget met with stiff resistance last Monday, October 3 when Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst presented her $80.3 million spending plan. The tentative budget — just shy of this year’s current $81.6 million operating budget — seeks to impose a zero-percent tax levy increase, while at the same time absorbing a $5.1 million increase in fixed costs for state-mandated programs like health insurance and pensions.

For the average homeowner on the Southampton side of Sag Harbor Village  with a house valued at $600,000, town taxes are estimated to be $236, which is $25 lower than the approximate amount village residents paid in 2010.

Based on this year’s tentative budget, a town homeowner outside an incorporated village can expect to pay $835 in town taxes for a home assessed at $600,000. This is estimated to be an $18 increase from 2010.

Your tax rate can be calculated by multiplying each $1,000 of assessed value of your home by 1.391. So, for a home worth $600,000, you would multiply 600 by 1.391 to get $835. That would be your projected tax rate for Southampton Town outside of incorporated villages.

These figures do not include school district taxes.

In order to shrink the town’s budget by more than $5 million without raising taxes, Throne-Holst said it will require taking a “surgical” look at how the town’s services are staffed, organized and presented to the public. While the supervisor has outlined plans for eliminating upwards of 28 positions across all departments, the most sweeping change, for some, will affect law enforcement.

The proposal to cut eight to 10 members of the Southampton Town Police Department’s senior staff is “outrageous,” said a noticeably flustered Councilwoman Nancy Graboski in an interview directly following the supervisor’s presentation.

In order to chop $1.7 million from the police department’s budget, Throne-Holst seeks to implement the town’s “Twenty Years of Service” provision, which, by law, gives the town the authority to “separate from service” those officers who have worked for the town for 20 years or more, awarding them full retirement benefits upon departure. However, Throne-Holst said the town will only have to narrow-in on those eight officers who have served at least 25 years or more to achieve the desired amount of savings.

Throne-Holst said she recognized this tactic will remove senior and therefore more experienced officers from the force, but she added that the department will be able to “fill [positions] from below at a much lower cost.”

This maneuver also feeds into the supervisor’s plan — which was jointly created with Southampton Town Police Chief Bill Wilson — to make the department less “top heavy.”

“The idea is to have more cops and cars on the streets,” rather than in the office doing more administrative tasks, she said.

However, Graboski said she feels it is rather hasty for the town to reorganize the police department from the top down without a more strategic plan for replacing personnel.

“That infrastructure hasn’t been put in place,” she said.

Graboski referred to a plan that was suggested back in 2008 by the then-supervisor, Linda Kabot, to gradually trim the police force by two to three officers each year. It was never enacted.

“The important thing was to use objective criteria,” she continued.

According to Kabot’s suggestion at the time, officers’ attendance records would be reviewed over a five-year term and those officers with weaker performance records would be let go.

In an interview on Monday, Kabot — who had attended the supervisor’s budget presentation — seemed equally perturbed by the proposed budget cuts.

“These proposals [to cut the police force, implement staff layoffs and reorganize departments at town hall] are dusting off ones I had put on the floor a few years ago,” she announced.

Kabot, who is mounting a write-in campaign for supervisor against Throne-Holst in this fall’s election, further criticized the proposed plan to make cuts to the police department only at the very top.

“It is clearly a public statement on the newly founded Superior Officers’ Association (SOA),” said Kabot.

Several members of the SOA attended Monday’s meeting to voice their concerns.

Cutting eight employees “will be devastating to the police department,” Sergeant Michael Zarrow said on behalf of the group.

While the department had budgeted for 96 officers this year, he went on to say that it is now down to 92 based on retirements.

Sergeant Scott Foster added, “The SOA told this town we’re still open to negotiating.”

In addition to those eight members of the police force, the town expects to see six civilian retirements, based on responses from those expressing strong interest in retirement incentives proposed by the town this year. Similar to what the state was offering last year, town employees who choose to retire this year will receive a cash bonus upon departure of $1,000 for each year of service to the town.

But the town will also be eliminating 14 positions, including two attorneys from the town attorney’s office, and positions in the information technology department, land management department, tax receiver’s office, tax assessor’s office and others. The supervisor would not discuss the names of individuals affected by these proposed cuts.

What’s more, the proposed budget aims to curb health insurance costs. Next year, it would be required that all elected officials and non-union administrative employees contribute to their health plans, while benefits for all members of the zoning board of appeals and the planning board would be eliminated.

In terms of reorganization, the supervisor hopes to combine administrative services — particularly at the police department, which she said now uses “archaic” methods for keeping records.

And at town hall she said she hopes to create a Constituent Response Center, which would be operated by one employee and serve as a hub for all departments.

The response center, to be operated by the town’s current citizen’s advocate, Ryan Horn, would be “a first step to establishing centralized citizen information and response services,” Throne-Holst said. It would effectively eliminate two town hall positions.

“While the town certainly regrets the loss of personnel, many of whom have served in positions of rank, the need for cost reductions, greater efficiency and a new view of how to provide police services, made this decision necessary,” the supervisor announced before the crowd Monday night. “We will also continue to explore, in collective bargaining and otherwise, ways to control our police labor costs.”

With the imminent approach of increased restrictions in the months preceding the state’s mandated two-percent tax levy cap (which will go into effect before next year’s budget), Throne-Holst said she chose to keep costs below that mark, mostly for strategic reasons.

Last year, the supervisor’s tentative budget proposed tax hikes of 2.4 percent, money that would be used to pay-down the town’s deficit and increase reserve funds. It was shot down by the town’s Republican majority in favor of a zero percent increase.

“This year I opted to say, ‘Here’s the zero [percent tax levy increase] in a way that I see as sustainable,” she explained. As she sees it, this way the town board has the flexibility to increase taxes by two percent, if it so chooses.

“If the goal is to get to zero, here’s how to do it with a well thought out, truly sustainable plan,” said Throne-Holst.