OLD SAYBROOK — Police Chief Michael Spera is proposing that the town address his department’s chronic shortage of police officers with a series of hiring bonuses, salary increases and improved pensions and benefits.
At a meeting of the Police Commission last week, Spera told the commissioners that the department currently has 17 active officers, and three are planning to leave the department and find another place to work. The department would need 25 officers to be fully staffed.
The town has lost seven police officers since last August, according to meeting minutes. Two, Tyler Schultz and Joshua Zarbo, were fired by the department for misconduct.
“What we are going to talk about tonight, I can’t fix on my own,” Spera told the commissioners.
Spera suggested a hiring bonus of $20,000 for new officers, broken down into payments of $5,000 upon hire and at 6 months, 12 months and 18 months of employment. But he said he was willing to work with whatever number the town approved.
He also suggested “finders fees” of $1,500 for current officers who recruit another officer into the department if that officer remains for at least a year.
Spera also proposed a $10,000 pay raise for every officer in the department, along with changes to employee retirement benefits, including building a Cost of Living Adjustment, accounting for overtime hours when calculating the pension amount, offering post-retirement healthcare and reducing the eligibility for retirement from 25 years of service to 20.
“Our house is on fire. And I am not looking for just enough water to get the fire under control, I’m looking for enough control to put the fire out,” said Spera.
“A strong financial position”
Old Saybrook would need to commission an actuarial study, which Spera estimated would cost about $5,000, before the town can adjust retirement benefits.
Spera said no such study has been performed in the 14 years he had been the police chief.
He suggested that once the data was gathered, the town could bring together a committee made up of the police union, the Board of Finance chair, the Police Commission, the chair of the Pension and Benefits Board and the Board of Selectmen to discuss what to do.
“I would assume that the town, understanding what we’re going through here and the crisis that we’re in — would be willing to work on the issues,” he said.
Spera pointed out that the police department had a budget surplus of $200,000 and that the town of Old Saybrook had a budget surplus of $1 million, and that if the retirement age was lowered to 20 years, only two current police officers would become immediately eligible for retirement.
“We are in a very strong financial position, which we should be proud of. And I’m not suggesting that we should put ourselves in peril and not be in a strong financial position, but I do think we have the funds and the ability to invest in human capital,” he said.
Union Vice President Chris DeMarco read a statement from Union President Ryan Walsh in support of Spera’s proposals, saying they hoped the increased salaries and benefits would convince people to apply to work at the department.
“The department has become a launching pad for some highly skilled officers — very talented — who have learned the trade here, then take their craftsmanship elsewhere because they do not have the benefits package and salary that matches up with some of these other towns,” wrote Walsh.
First Selectman Carl Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email that the town would consider an actuarial study to look at the possibility of modifying benefits before the current union contract goes up for negotiation in June of next year. But he said there are many other ways to modify the benefits, such as reducing retirement eligibility from 25 years of service to 22 or 23 years instead of 20, or looking at a cost of living adjustment every two or three years instead of annually.
Fortuna told CT Examiner that he believed the people of Old Saybrook needed to be reasonably assured that increasing the benefits would actually convince more officers to stay in the town.
“I think the townspeople, as well as all interested boards and commissions, would like to have high confidence that, should changes be made, the problem surrounding attraction/retention of police officers will be remedied and that, in fact, this is the core issue causing the turnover problem which the town has been experiencing for many years.”
“The demonization of policing”
Spera said that the problem of recruiting and retaining offers was an issue faced by departments nationwide, making it difficult to hire more police officers.
Mike Finkelstein, chief of the East Lyme Police, said that he, too, had had difficulty finding applicants to hire for his department, and that the problem was widespread. He told CT Examiner that the 20 to 30 people previously taking the Regional Entry Exam for police officers had dropped to only 4 or 5 people.
Chief Jack Drumm of the Madison Police agreed.
“If you look at policing today — there are a lot of people who don’t look at policing as favorable employment,” said Drumm, adding that he referred to it as the “demonization of policing.”
Spera said he believed the policing lifestyle was partially to blame for this.
“Here’s what we offer you in law enforcement: the ability to work on every holiday. To have to take a vacation day just to be with your kid on their birthday. To work a midnight shift when it’s cold and rainy out, when no one wants to be outside at all. Law enforcement doesn’t offer great quality of life,” he said.
But Finkelstein said that while recruitment was challenging, the East Lyme Police Department had not had an exodus of police officers from the force — he said that in six years, eight people had left the police department — four who retired, three who went into a different field of work, and one who left to join the state police.
Finkelstein said East Lyme did not offer hiring bonuses or finders’ fees.
Drumm said that, with the exception of three police officers fired in the aftermath of an investigation, the department had not had a lot of people leave. The last four hires by the department, Drumm said, all remained on the force, and that every hire over the last eight years was still with the department.
But Drumm also said that, like Spera, he is discussing the possibility of offering hiring bonuses, as well as increasing the amount that the town will match into an officer’s pension, as a way of insulating people from future inflation.
At the meeting of the Old Saybrook Police Commission last week, the commissioners voted to recommend that First Selectman Carl Fortuna negotiate hiring bonuses and salary increases with the police union, and to study the cost of increasing benefits for the officers.
“This is not just collective bargaining — one situation where we’re negotiating one contract every three years,” said Commissioner Jill Notar-Francesco. “This is a very huge deal, and we have some significant money to talk about in this, and I think it’s going to require different elements of the town to actually come together in one voice and speak to it.”
“We are going to push for this, and I hope that the union can push as much as they can, too,” said Commissioner Renee Shippee.