As the Board of Alders moved toward approving a budget for the coming fiscal year at a Wednesday night Finance Committee meeting, overtime costs and hiring levels at the police and fire departments rose to the forefront of discussion.
At the meeting in City Hall, city administrators and the alders discussed the finances of the two departments, as laid out in the draft of the city budget for fiscal year 2016. Chief among the alders’ concerns were overtime expenditures and the creation of new positions in the police and fire departments. Last night’s hearing was the fourth of the alders’ series of five budget workshops, which have been held since Mayor Toni Harp announced the provisional city budget in February.
New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman said the police department is endorsing the budget, which will allow for the hiring of new officers. Esserman said these hirings will reduce overtime expenditures.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Esserman said. “For the last four years, since before I got here, we lost more officers than we hired every year. But we finally caught up, and the way we did that was with [the alders’] help.”
Esserman said the department has so far graduated 60 officers from its two academies since December 2014, and 34 more will graduate in July. As a result of the new hires, overtime expenditures have fallen from $4.5 million to $4 million this fiscal year, and for the coming fiscal year, the department is requesting only $3 million from the city.
Additionally, at least 75 officers — the majority of recently graduated officers — will serve on walking beats, Esserman said. That decision is part of the department’s effort to expand community policing throughout the city.
Ward 17 Alder Alphonse Paolillo Jr. expressed concern over the number of retirements and resignations the police force might see in coming months. In response, Esserman said that while 48 officers are eligible for retirement this year, he expects only roughly 24 officers to retire by the end of this fiscal year. Resignations are less common than retirements from the police force, but some officers do leave to join higher-paying police departments in the region, Esserman said.
Paolillo noted the police department is currently running a $500,000 deficit, and overtime expenditures now stand at $75,000 per week. But this year’s budget accounts for an average of $60,000 per week in overtime — in order balance the budget, the department will need to limit overtime spending to $50,000 for the next 12 weeks.
One of the 25 new positions the police department is requesting is a community outreach coordinator. That position will work with the public to distribute information about the department, especially through social media.
The fire department is facing many of the same concerns as the police department: a high deficit, overtime costs and a history of stagnant hiring. Before this year, no recruit class had graduated since 2008, and no promotion ceremony had been held in 14 years, said New Haven Fire Department Chief Allyn Wright.
But Wright said the fire department is making progress: One class of recruits graduated earlier this year, and two more will graduate later in the year, on May 15 and in July respectively. The department hopes to graduate a fourth group later in the year.
Those graduations mean that the department, which had only 234 firefighters last July, could have up to 357 by next year, a level not seen since 2004.
Wright expressed optimism about the financial future of the department.
“We have a great training division, and that’s actually training our recruits right now,” he said. “I’m going to bring back diversity training, and I want to look into physical fitness and make sure our firefighters are in shape.”
But some dark spots might loom on the department’s horizon. Both Wright and Ward 4 Alder Andrea Jackson-Brooks remarked on the poor physical condition of many firehouses across the city, some of which are in “dire straits,” according to Wright. Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter said the city’s engineering department is currently working with the fire department on a capital projects “master plan” to improve fire infrastructure.
Additionally, overtime costs are still a concern. The department has averaged $160,000 per week in overtime costs for the last several months, and Carter said he plans to cut that figure to $50,000 per week.
Carter said this cut may be possible once the third class of recruits graduates, assuming the number of retirees stays low — Carter only expects around a dozen.
Paolillo cast some doubt on the ability of the fire department to stay within its financial constraints. The department’s deficit stands at $4 million, a figure that might limit the department’s actions.
“You can hire all the classes that you want, but if you don’t plan appropriately, you’re just running backwards on a treadmill,” he said.
Like Esserman, Wright has requested the hiring of a community relations staffer. At present, Wright himself does much of the department’s community relations — he estimated that he attends at least 90 events per year.