OLD SAYBROOK — The Police Commission voted on Monday to approve the chief of police’s recommendation of a $5,238,272 fiscal year 2020-21 operating budget for the Department of Police Services, a 3.8 percent increase over the previous year.
For fiscal year 2019-20, the $5,046,205 police budget accounted for about 10.8 percent of Old Saybrook’s overall budget of $46,520,189, the most for any department in Old Saybrook’s municipal budget, excluding school spending.
Police Chief Michael A. Spera said this year’s increase is driven by the contractual obligations of salaries, benefits, insurance, and other staffing costs.
“The message that I have this year is similar to the message that I had last year,” Spera said at his January 6 budget presentation, “which is, stay the course. Staying the course has yielded us professional success.”
Spera said that staffing costs are usually predictable for years into the future, but FY 2020-21 comes with added uncertainty given that the union contract for police and public safety with the town will expire on June 30, “which means we do not know what the raise will be on July 1.”
Staff salaries and benefits already increase from year to year as department employees accrue seniority and advance to higher pay grades. The pay grades are also expected to increase in the upcoming negotiations.
Spera said his budget recommendation was made to accomodate a 2 percent increase to existing union salary grades, although the actual costs will not be clear until the union and First Selectman Carl Fortuna sign an agreement.
On January 13, Spera told the police commission that based on exit interviews with departing employees, the most frequently cited reasons for leaving the Old Saybrook police force are better salaries, vacation time, and benefits available in other jobs.
At the same meeting, the police commission voted to request that Fortuna include them in upcoming police union negotiations.
A large police force and out-of-town population
Spera explained that 25 full-time law enforcement officers may seem like a large number for a town of Old Saybrook’s size, but it’s needed to handle the department’s much larger “service population,” that includes many non-residents.
“There are a lot of times when people say, ‘Why do you need 25 cops for a population of 10,000?’ The answer is, we don’t. But we police the service population, and all of our data shows that,” said Spera.
In 2019, 73 percent of the department’s motor vehicle citations, and over 79 percent of arrests, were given to non-residents according to statistics from the Old Saybrook Department of Police Services and the National Incident-Based Reporting System shared by Spera.
“If we didn’t have a robust service population in town, all of our businesses would not prosper,” Spera said. “There’s over 90 restaurants in the Town of Old Saybrook that get inspected and certified by the regional health authority. That would not be sustained by 10,000 people. All of the major box stores that we have and some of our small mom-and-pop stores that are extremely successful would not achieve that success if people were not attracted to our community.”
Of nearby towns, Spera said that Old Saybrook’s police department is most comparable to East Lyme, which according to his presentation, has 24 full-time law enforcement officers. Madison has 30 officers, Guilford has 38, Stonington has 39, Waterford has 49, and Branford has 53.
Spera said that in recent years the Old Saybrook police department has reduced its number of senior-level officers and increased its number of patrolmen.
“I came in with a vision and a desire to trim down the top and boost up the patrolman lineup,” he said.
Since 2015, Spera said that the department has reduced the number of master sergeants employed from two to one, and from one detective sergeant to none. At the same time, the department increased the number of patrolmen positions from 12 to 16 — although 2 will be promoted to patrol sergeants.
Some of these patrolman positions, while budgeted for, are not currently staffed, Spera said.
Spera suggested that the police department and town leadership could make the police budget more consistent in future years — and avoid unexpected cost spikes — if “we don’t budget for people, we budget for positions.”
Spera suggested that if the department budgeted each position at the most senior pay grade, the costs would be consistent from year to year.
Similarly, he recommended that in union negotiations the two parties agree to award pay grade increases for all employees on a single date, rather than increasing every individual employee’s salary on the anniversary of their starting date.
“Right now you get your step raise whenever that year anniversary comes up, and it is an absolute nightmare for the accounting department of town hall to recalculate everything.”
Spera said that he had included $29,000 in the budget request as a one-time cost to implement the change, which he said aligns the department with most other union contracts with the town.
Copies of the budget will be made available to the Estuary Council of Seniors and to the town’s library.