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.”