OLD SAYBROOK — The Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen are asking residents to approve about $100,000 in town funds to pursue an organizational climate study of the town’s Police Department.
Voters will be asked to approve the funding at a referendum on January 22.
First Selectman Carl Fortuna told residents at a town meeting on Tuesday that the impetus for the study came after Police Chief Michael Spera raised the alarm in July about a staffing crisis within the department. At the time, the department had 17 officers on the payroll.
Spera requested that the town increase officers’ salaries, benefits and pensions in an effort to increase recruitment and retention. His proposals included a $20,000 signing bonus, a $10,000 salary increase for officers across the board, better health insurance for retirees, a Cost of Living Adjustment in the pension and lowering the retirement age.
But Fortuna responded that if the town was going to make significant investments into the police department, he wanted to be certain that those investments would solve the problem.
“This was certainly subject to negotiation, but as you can see, it is quite a list, and it would be, quite frankly, a very costly list of enhancements,” Fortuna said. “Whether these guys deserve health insurance upon retirement, higher pay — I’m not here to quibble about any of that right now. But my response to the chief was, ‘I think we need to get someone in here, because this is a significant request.’”
On Fortuna’s recommendation, the Board of Selectmen voted in October to recommend that the town hire consultants to conduct an independent study of the department. Fortuna said Tuesday that he wanted to be prepared for the upcoming labor negotiations with the police union when the union contract expires in June 2024. He said that the consultants would compare pay and benefits in Old Saybrook with other similar towns across the state.
The consulting firm will also conduct interviews with current and former staff members of the department.
In a series of stories in 2020, CT Examiner reported on what former officers with the department called a “toxic” work environment in Old Saybrook.
Out of three proposals, Fortuna originally recommended the firm CLAConnect, which he said had previously worked with the town. But the Police Commission selected the Police Executive Research Forum — or PERF — to conduct the study, which Fortuna said he supported.
“The Police Commission is really, I believe, the commission from which this recommendation should come,” Fortuna said.
CLAConnect quoted their cost at between $35,000 and $42,000, compared to the $99,000 that PERF charged. But Police Commission Chair Alfred “Chub” Wilcox said he preferred PERF’s methodology, and that CLAConnect might require additional fees down the road. He also said that Spera had recommended PERF as the “gold standard” for police department evaluations, and that PERF would take a more positive approach.
“The CLA proposal, when you read it, gave the impression that what they were solely focusing on was what was wrong with the Old Saybrook Police Department that led people to leave. The PERF proposal is much more positive,” said Wilcox.
Fortuna added that PERF’s team included people who worked with the Department of Justice and in law enforcement nationally, and that they were well-known in the field.
“The CLA group is an international consulting firm. They’re generalists, and I think that was a little bit of a turn off to the Police Commission,” said Fortuna. “In addition, their proposal, while nearly $50,000 less, was somewhat open-ended on the high end. And they were very straightforward in saying these costs could increase by a margin of a certain amount based on ‘factors that we start discovering’ or something. So that also was a little bit of a turn off to the folks who were looking at three solicitations.”
In their proposal, PERF said they planned to interview Spera, the town selectmen, the police commission, police officers and police department staff and officers who have left the department within the last three years. The consultants also plan to review previous department reports on staffing and recruitment, to look at the department’s hiring process and to benchmark pay and benefits against comparable Connecticut towns.
“The PERF team needs to understand the history and culture of [the Old Saybrook Police Department], as well as its employees’ views of its strengths and weaknesses, with an eye towards recruiting and retaining officers (what attracts people to a career with [the department], and why officers leave),” the proposal reads. “Speaking with stakeholders will guide the project team and ensure that PERF’s ultimate recommendations reflect the mission, vision, and values of the Town and [the department].”
PERF has done studies on police departments across the country and in Connecticut, including in the towns of Clinton, East Haven, Mansfield, Windsor and Bridgeport. Their team includes a retired police Major and bureau chief who served in Anne Arundel County, Maryland; a former county and state prosecutor who also worked in the New York State Office of the Attorney General; and a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the Baltimore Police Department who has worked with the Department of Justice.
If approved, Fortuna said, the consultants would begin work right away. He said that while he’s not sure if the entire report would be available to the public after completion, there would be an executive summary that the public would be able to view.
The referendum will take place between 12 and 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 22nd, at the Old Saybrook Senior High School Gym.