OLD SAYBROOK — The Old Saybrook Police Commission voted 5-2 to approve a budget of $5,333,360 for the town’s police department on Monday night — an increase of $95,088 over last year.
The draft budget will next be sent to the town’s board of selectmen for a final vote.
The budget includes a 2.25 percent raise in salaries, an increase in workman’s compensation and an increase in retirement benefits for officers as negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement with the police union. Dispatchers will also receive a two percent salary increase.
Other increases in the budget came from unfunded mandates written in the Police Accountability Bill – drug screening for officers and mental health assessments for recertification.
The commission also approved a marine patrol budget of $61,015, an increase of $1,125 from last year’s budget, and included a two percent raise for the chief of police bringing his salary from $161,582 to $164,814.
Lee Ann Palladino, finance director for the town, said that she works with Chief of Police Michael Spera to budget employee contracts, and agreed with the final numbers.
Public questions on budget calculations
Spera told commission members that the department responded to 9,765 incidents in the year 2020 — a number that, according to his calculations, requires 16 fully-funded patrol officers.
In a letter addressed to Commission Chair Frank Keeney, town resident Bruce Carlson questioned that calculation, pointing out that according to numbers and formulas presented by Spera at a January 4 meeting, there were 6,914 incidents for the year — not 9,765. Using Spera’s earlier numbers, the town requires just over 11 officers, Carlson wrote.
Spera said that he would look into the apparent discrepancy, but questioned the claim.
An evaluation before a raise?
Alfred Wilcox, who with Renee Shipee voted against the budget, told commission members last week that he could not vote to approve a raise for Spera without first meeting with him to set goals for the coming year.
According to the employment contract for the chief of police: “The Chief of Police shall be evaluated annually by the Police Commission” in a process that includes “outlined goals and objectives from the previous year, and include an opportunity for a self-evaluation, an evaluation review with the Police Commission, and discussion about the evaluation.”
According to language included in the contact, this evaluation “may be used in determining wage increases in concert with this document.”
Wilcox said he believed that the chief’s contract made any raises after his first five years on the job contingent on an evaluation.
But Keeney pointed out that the language in the contract did not necessarily tie a salary increase to an evaluation.
According to Palladino, the majority of department heads in the town are part of the supervisor’s union, and receive wages as part of a collective bargaining agreement. Those not part of the union, such as herself and the police chief, receive their wages based on a recommendation from the first Selectman’s office. She said that she does not have to undergo a yearly evaluation to receive a raise, although she does complete a self-evaluation.
Spera presents goals
In his budget presentation, Spera presented several goals for himself for the coming year. These included diversifying the department, attending non-mandatory professional development training, creating a new social media platform for the department, creating a new strategy for frequent policy review by the staff, increasing community forums, enhancing neighborhood watch programs and establishing for himself a proper work-life balance.
But Wilcox said that the process of reviewing the chief’s goals should take place earlier, rather than during a presentation of the budget, so that they could be used to evaluate whether Spera should receive a salary increase. Wilcox said that the commissioners should publicly propose their goals for the chief and vote on the proposed goals.
Wilcox outlined several goals he would like to see for the chief. He said he would like to see the chief submit written reports at each meeting of the Police Commission regarding the complaints the department received and how they were handled, any incidents that the department responded to and how they were resolved, and all contributions made to the department, including the amount and intended use.
Wilcox also proposed moving forward on an independent review of the structure and staffing of the department, and asked for the creation of a subcommittee to review officers’ exit interviews.
Keeney said that the Police Commission should discuss goals at a later date, as the commission had met to vote on the budget, which needed to be passed before a January 15 deadline.
The board also voted on three further initiatives proposed by Spera in his budget presentation on Jan. 6.
One was to fund all contract employees — officers and dispatchers — at the top level of their respective ranks, rather than using step salaries. Spera said that this would create budget stabilization going forward, rather than having fluctuations as officers move up within their tiers.
Keeney said that doing this would arbitrarily inflate the budget this year in order to stabilize the budget in later years, an idea which he did not agree with.
Palladino also said that she did not recommend the proposal, which would not conform with how other town departments calculated budgets.
The commission voted unanimously against the proposal.
A second proposal, to forward a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen to consider that a social worker accompany police officers on calls when helpful, was approved 6-1.
Spera said that this recommendation was drawn from one of the points in the Police Accountability Bill, which requires that local police departments consider having social workers accompany police officers to respond to certain calls for assistance.
Heather McNeil, the director at Old Saybrook Youth and Family Services, told the commission at last night’s meeting that she was in favor of exploring the idea. But she said that she did not know how much it would cost to have someone embedded with the police department. The position, if approved, would need to be included in the budget for the following fiscal year.
Shipee voted against the motion, saying that because the motion was not on the meeting agenda, the commission should not vote on the measure.
Spera also proposed hiring a public relations firm to improve the image of the Town of Old Saybrook, including the police department.
Commissioner Susan Quish said that she viewed it as a way of highlighting for the public the good things that the police department does.
Wilcox said that the idea of needing a public relations firm for the department was “very sad.”
The Commission voted against the proposal 4-3, with Keeney, Shipee, Wilcox and Commissioner Joseph Maselli voting no.