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Mayor, Council balk at bolstering police ranks

Police Chief Neil B. Merritt and Police Board member Richard Conley urged the Common Council Wednesday to solve the Police Department's overtime woes by allowing the hiring of five new officers.
The suggestion didn't go over too well with Mayor Michael W. Tucker or the aldermen.

"The Council's job is to sit there and try to make things as affordable to the people as possible," Tucker said. "It's easy to sit there and say we have to hire five cops. I won't dispute we could probably use some cops. . . . The Police Board needs to sit down and find some ways to do things differently."
"In one year [in office], all I've heard is, 'We need more bodies to do our job,'" Alderman Thomas F. Grzebinski II, R-1st Ward, told Merritt. "I just challenge you to find better ways to do the job."
Tucker acknowledged a concern for officer safety, since patrol allocations are down to as few as three officers per shift. "The Police Board has to be creative," he said.
Merritt said the minimum manning level for a police shift is six officers, and even so he's having a tough time scheduling vacations, because the department's total strength, including supervisory ranks and detectives, is 48 officers.
Five years ago, when the department had 53 officers, overtime for the year was $4,000. In 2002, it rose to $57,000. It jumped to $127,000 in 2003, after six officers retired and only two were replaced.
In 2004, overtime costs were $144,000. They jumped to $284,000 in 2005 with one more unreplaced retirement and a rash of officers out with injuries; at one time in 2005, seven officers were drawing workers' compensation. For this year, Merritt projects overtime costs of $385,000.
In 2007, if nothing changes, Merritt projects $362,000 in overtime costs. But he said it would cost only $298,095 in salary and benefits to hire five new officers.
He cautioned the savings wouldn't be immediate, since rookies need eight months of training in the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy and on the job. Hiring officers away from other police agencies would shorten the training time, but Merritt said he doubted more than one or two could be found.
When there aren't enough officers, Merritt calls in someone from another platoon to work a shift, or in many cases, an officer just keeps working at the end of the regular shift. Officers receive time-and-a-half for the whole second shift.
Conley said, "I don't think it's good to have an officer working 16 hours. It's not good for the officer. It's not good for the city."
Merritt said, "There was a conscious decision made that we'll reduce the number of people and pay the overtime, and we'll still be ahead."
It hasn't worked out that way, but Grzebinski said the number of officers out on compensation is "an aberration."
Merritt said the practice of paying officers recovering from injuries to work "light duty," which began in 2003, doesn't help him. Even though light duty is paid as straight time, officers on that status don't count toward the minimum manning for a shift, so their presence doesn't reduce overtime.

Tucker said renegotiating those terms with the police union will be a priority in the next contract. "Light duty is something we have to attack head on," he said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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