Pittsfield City Council approves police, fire budget increases


PITTSFIELD — Police Chief Michael Wynn and Mayor Linda M. Tyer on Tuesday night detailed plans for addressing the city's understaffed Police Department within a $9.8 million fiscal 2017 departmental budget — up from $8.84 million for the current year.

City Councilors unanimously approved the mayor's $9.8 million police budget for the next fiscal year after hearing the budget details and staffing concerns.

Even with just under $1 million added to the police budget for next year — which includes six additional officer positions — Wynn and Tyer said the department's staffing levels will be slow to rise due to a number of factors.

Speaking during the third of five City Council budget review sessions, Wynn described a department that is answering "substantially more calls" than in past years, while staffing levels have not kept up with the need. Among the policing issues on the increase are crimes related to drug addiction, including gang activity and shootings; break-ins and thefts, domestic violence and vandalism.

The chief said that the department has 93 authorized officer positions, but the actual total now is 83 officers. And the active list is even lower because of injuries, officers out on long-term disability and other factors.

In addition, five officers have notified the department they plan to retire or change careers.

For a city of Pittsfield's size, with its large number of visitors for cultural and special events, Wynn added, the total should be about 120 officers.

Given the approximately one year time frame for hiring new officers through the Civil Service process, vetting them and sending candidates to the state Police Academy, it will be some time before new hires can have an impact on staffing levels, the officials said.

In addition to Civil Service testing and hiring requirements, the process involves 22 weeks of academy training followed by 14 weeks of field training with the department, Wynn said. He and Tyer said there are 11 officers in training now and 12 more involved with the overall hiring process.

The PPD could hire a trained officer from another department within a few weeks, Wynn said, but that has proven difficult in recent years. "Historically, we have attracted officers," he said, based on the opportunity for advancement in a larger force, and the wider variety of calls and experience in policing. But that has not been the case recently.

Lower starting pay than in other regional police forces, at about $37,000, also is "not competitive," Wynn said.

Tyer said the six new positions and PPD equipment replacement and upgrades she recently added to the fiscal 2017 budget will essentially stabilize staffing because of retirements and other officers leaving, having been injured or otherwise not being on the active police roster.

"We will see where we stand next year," she said. "It will be all about the effectiveness of the staffing."

In addition to moving toward approximately 99 or 100 officer positions, Wynn said he also is considering staffing changes — such as creation of a five-officer traffic crime unit — a move that he believes will increase efficiency throughout the department.

Currently, the chief said, the department is thinly stretched in trying to cover all of its daily shifts. He said there are 17 or 18 officers assigned to the day shift, 18 to the evening shift, and 12 to 13 to the overnight shift. That includes all the potential officers for all shifts over the seven-day period, also covering vacations, sick days and time lost due to injury.

This is close to the minimum necessary, Wynn said, and has resulted in escalating overtime budget deficits in recent years. Part of the increase in the police budget this year reflects an effort to more accurately estimate the overtime total, Tyer said, rather than fill a large deficit at the end of the fiscal year through budget transfers.

In order to have some flexibility, Wynn said, and to free the K-9 officer and other specialists from having to help fill patrol shifts, there should be 21 to 23 officers assigned per day and evening shift.

The 12 city emergency dispatchers also are stretched thin, he said, as that is the minimum needed to cover 24 hours per day, seven days per week. That situation also has resulted in more overtime costs spent to fill shift gaps.

Councilors praised the difficult work police do. Ward 1 Councilor Lisa Tully said she asked to ride with an officer on patrol and did so one night in the Morningside neighborhood. "He knew everything in his ward," the councilor said. "He also said it was a slow night, but I didn't think so."

Tully noted that she was surprised officers only have a full weekend off every several weeks because of the schedule, adding that she was "amazed at the way they took pride in their jobs."

After councilors unanimously approved the mayor's $9.8 million police budget, they also approved a $712,616 Fire Department budget.

Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski described staffing levels at city fire stations that can just cover all the shifts but, as with the Police Department, the Fire Department must rely on spending a significant amount in overtime pay, requiring budget transfers at the end of the fiscal year.

"This is only a slight increase," the mayor said of the fiscal 2017 fire department budget, "but the strategy is to put money into equipment."

Mayor Tyer's proposed $11.9 million capital budget plan, which will be reviewed on Thursday during the final review session, includes borrowing $600,000 for an engine and ladder truck and $100,000 for new command vehicles for the Fire Department.

In other budget reviews, the veterans services budget of just over $1 million, presented Monday by Director of Veterans Services James Clark, along with the Council on Aging and emergency management budgets, also were approved by the councilors.

About 75 percent of the veterans department expenditures will be reimbursed by the state.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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