Since making the difficulties in the local police department a call to action, the chairman of the agency’s ruling body is encouraged by the reaction he’s seen thus far. Police Commission Chairman Ray Collins said this week the result of statements made to the City Council by his colleague John Carrano last month, and published in local press accounts, has galvanized support for the WHPD.
Last month, Commissioner John Carrano, speaking for Collins and the commission, outlined a continued decline in the current numbers of the department, but the continued difficulties in getting replacements for the numbers who are leaving and going to other, more lucrative positions.
Carrano pointed out in his statement that the city’s police force is noncompetitive in terms of salary and benefits, including for those injured, and that a lack of a pension rather than 401k plan, has set up a revolving door of young officers, leaving the force after the city pays for their equipment and training to the tune of more than $100,000 per officer.
The current contract with the police union lapses at the end of the current fiscal year, negotiations for a new contract are ongoing, and it is hoped some of these longstanding problems can be addressed in the coming weeks and months.
In follow-up statements this week, Collins noted the reaction to the statement and press accounts, has served as a wake-up call for city leaders, and that attitude is seen by members of the department.
“The reactions from the rank-and-file that I have received have been very positive,” Collins said. “They are very appreciative that all parties concerned (commission, council and mayor) have realized the issue and have worked together to come up with a solution. I have also heard many positive reactions from the general public. As a whole our community has a great respect and appreciation of our officers who, I believe are the best in the state.”
The city’s financial problems over the years have created a pay gap with other towns that is making the moving more attractive to officers. Collins said the city can take immediate steps in the current contract negotiations that can stem the tide.
But the city’s decision in 2009 to move from a pension plan to a 401k is the biggest disincentive for keeping officers and hiring new ones. City officials at the time thought the move would be part of a larger wave of cities and towns doing the same thing, but many that did, quickly went back to a defined benefit. In his statement to the council, Carrano noted the city will lose seven officers in the coming months, cutting the force from 114 (from a maximum of 121) to 107.
Collins said this is the big hurdle to be overcome.
“The next key step in addressing the issue of retention is to immediately work on bringing back a defined benefit package (pension), because not only is important to pay our officers at a competitive rate, but also protect them against any god forbid career ending injury that may occur,” he said. “When we hire a new officer, we want that officer to be able to afford to spend his/her entire career with us.”
Collins said these are the major problems concerning the department, and, so far, no other negative ripple effects have been noticed. But the new effort to improve things for officers might be having its own ripple effect.
“I have heard about a few officers that were planning on leaving/retiring that are now reconsidering,” he said.
Collins said the recent call to action by Carrano and the Commission has put the issue of the WHPD on the front burner. He is hopeful this new awareness will bring about the changes he believes will help the city and the department staff.
“I am very encouraged that the elected community could come together and listen to an issue, discuss, negotiate and act on it without turning this into a political football. The retention and well being or our officers that PROTECT AND SERVE our community 24/7 is paramount, and I thank each and everyone involved to help not only to address and acknowledge the situation, but also to finally begin to remedy it,” he said.
City Council Finance Chairman Bridgette Hoskie, meanwhile, is watching the negotiations. She has been concerned about the issue for years, and is hopeful the recent attention will turn things around.
“I have been talking about this issue for a few years now. Every budget season I bring up salaries and lack of pension. It is a pressing matter,” She said. “I obtained salary data from CCM (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities) a few months ago. I met with the commissioners and shared the info . I also discussed what other data needed to be brought forward to show the state of emergency we are in. This is a pressing matter that needs to be addressed. The salary disparity needs to be addressed immediately before this city hits that state of emergency.”
As the Finance Committee Chairman, Hoskie has looked into various ways to fund the PD. She doesn’t think a tax increase is the way to fund the problem.
“There are many ways to fund the right sizing of the WHPD. There will be some bonding that will be paid off in the amount of about $5M a year. Of course, we will bond for other projects but there will be a need to balance the load. We also have some new tax revenue sources coming in through economic development. Increasing taxes is never the go-to in which we look to fund items. This needs to be done and we need to do it right,” she said.
Hoskie said a long-term solution is needed, not some short-term fix. This goes beyond just eh WHPD, she said.
“We need to have a plan of action, a plan for today and the future that encompasses everything. Bonding, right sizing salaries and ensuring services and/or programs for our community. This issue is not just the WHPD, our Fire Departments are struggling as well. I have spoken with the chiefs of Allingtown and the Center to encourage them to begin the process. All our departments need long term goals that include not just purchasing equipment, building new house but how to fund and give our men and woman wages deserving of those who risk their lives for us.”