With the city’s contract with members of the West Haven Police Department scheduled to lapse on June 30, negotiations for a new pact have been underway between the administration of Mayor Nancy Rossi and the West Haven Police Union Local 895. A member of the Police Commission recently alerted the City Council the department is reaching a serious personnel shortage that must be addressed quickly.
Commissioner John Carrano, speaking for Commission Chairman Ray Collins who was under quarantine, made a blunt statement to newly installed council: make West Haven competitive in the hiring of new police, or face an understaffed, underpaid department.
Carrano said the city’s inability to be competitive has created a common scene, where police rookies are hired, go through the process of training at the expense of the city, and leave the department for greener pastures when the opportunity arises.
“We found that WH offers the lowest salary compared to these other municipalities. We are 11% or $6,300 below the average on our starting salary and 15% or $11,000 under the average on our Maximum Patrolman Salary. It wasn’t always like this. In fact, we were the go-to department in the not so distant past as we were highly competitive with both our salary and compensation. Unfortunately, our steady decline in competitive wages worsened over the last 5 years. While other departments were getting 3% raises each year, the WHPD received 2% in 2017, 0% for 2018, 0% in 2019, 0% in 2020 and 1% in 2021. In summary, we lost 12% in pay to these other departments since 2017 and the result is we are now last. Yes, in the upcoming budget there is a 2.5% raise, but at this point that just makes sure we don’t fall any further behind and does nothing to bridge the large gap created,” he said.
Not only is the pay not competitive, according to Carrano, but the compensation package is noncompetitive as well. That problem had its antecedents, and Carrano pointed to one decision.
“This downward spiral in competitive pay was preceded by a decision in 2009 to not offer new officers a pension and instead only offer a 401k without an attractive long-term disability coverage,” he said. “At the WHPD, our more seasoned officers still operate under the pension that had been in place for years. There are some other towns that offer a 401k, but in each of these instances the officer’s future earning power is covered by higher wages and an attractive Long-Term Disability Plan. In West Haven, we are not only the lowest paid, but we do not have a pension and we do not have an attractive long-term disability plan.”
Carrano said a disabled officer has only one recourse under the current economic environment.
“If one of our officers gets permanently disabled, say they get hit by a car or worse, their only course of earnings is 36-months of Workers Compensation and then Social Security Disability. Even further, if one of our officers gets killed in action, there is no means for the family to get reimbursed for the future lost earnings.,” he said.
The council was told the recent round of applications saw 29 possibilities, with only 16 deciding to apply to the WHPD. Of those, 10 were eliminated for various reasons, six remained with one taking a position elsewhere, “due to the compensation package.” Seven positions are open, but the city may have only two applicants.
The common cycle was put before the council members.
“When we hire a rookie officer, we pay for them to be trained for 25 weeks in the academy. Then we pay them while they are on in-field training for 12 weeks, add in the recruitment cycle and we are at about a year before we can expect to fill a position,” Carrano said. “All-in, we are $100,000 into each new officer before they are fully productive. We have lost 21 Officers to other Departments since 2015. In most all instances it is a combination of much higher wages, a Pension and suitable disability insurance coverage. The easy math tells you that it has cost the city $2,100,000 since 2015 alone and this money instead could have been used to save the knowledge base and pay our officers a competitive wage.”
Carrano said the industry’s experts suggest a force of 134 for a city the size of West Haven, the current budget allows for 121, and the department has 114 on staff. This has created further problems.
“We recently lost two officers that we hired from other towns due to the amount of overtime they are being mandated to work. When Ray Collins approached one of these officers this fall, he told Ray that he was thrilled with the department and command staff, but he already put in his 20 years at another force and this past summer he was ordered in every weekend. While pay and defined benefits are important, so is quality of life and when you are in an understaffed situation as bad as we may be, the quality of life for these officers significantly declines as well,” he said.
Collins said the mayor is well aware of the problem and is hoping for a solution that will be equitable to both the city and the officers.
“Mayor Rossi is aware of the severity of these circumstances and she has asked the WHPD Union and Attorney Chris Hodgson to meet and work on an amicable solution to the salary compensation. Further, we know the mayor has been working closely…on reviewing pension options as well as developing an attractive long-term disability option. We are here today to ask for your help in supporting this situation. We look forward to being able to offer a competitive wage along with an affordable and competitive pension to protect our officers and their families moving forward,” he said finally.
As far as the Rossi administration is concerned, the situation does need addressing, and it needs a satisfactory conclusion. The mayor admits a problem in retaining officers and is hoping the negotiations underway will address it.
“There is a retention problem and I do believe it has to do with competitive compensation and the lack of benefits for our officers and their families. My administration is in active negotiations and discussing the issues at hand and I am confident, through collective bargaining, we will be successful,” she said.
While she was unable to discuss what is under negotiation, she praised Chief Joseph Perno for his leadership during the current problem.
“The turnover has been problematic and costly from an administrative standpoint and has been for more than 10 years,” she said. “I think Chief Perno has done a very good job ensuring police protection, although it has been a challenging task at times.”
The mayor is hoping once the new contract is negotiated, the City Council will have something to review as the city goes further into the budget-making process.
“The current police contract expires on June 30, and I hope the police union and my administration can have a tentative agreement before the budget is finalized by the City Council. My recommended budget to the City Council will include a contingency for the new contract,” she said.