By JOE LoTEMPLIO and DAN HEATH
---- — PLATTSBURGH — At about $6.8 million for 2012, Plattsburgh City Police is the city’s most expensive department.
Police Chief Desmond Racicot thinks the department is worth it.
“We are a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, awake and working department,” he said. “The taxpayers absolutely get a bang for their buck.”
That may be so, but the buck has been stretched significantly over the past decade.
UP 46% IN 10 YEARS
In 2002, the department had an overall budget of $3,744,780, with 55 full-time and four part-time officers. The highest-paid officer, a sergeant, made $55,372 while the lowest, a patrolman, made $23,493 that year.
By 2007, the budget had climbed to $5,317,377, with 54 full-timers and three part-timers. The high end of the pay scale for the same positions was $66,764 and the low end $27,103.
In 2012, the department budget was $6,860,782, with 56 full-time officers. The highest-paid officer earned $80,135 and the lowest $29,686.
Racicot, who became chief in 2003, says the budget has grown about 46 percent in the past decade for good reasons.
“When people think of the Police Department, they think of a black and white (vehicle) and an officer, but we are much more than that.”
Racicot noted that in addition to law enforcement, the department is responsible for animal control, the parking-violations bureau and crossing guards. Also, in the past decade, it has taken over all Internet technology for the whole city.
“All of those fall under our budget,” the chief said. “And we have management oversight over all of that.”
The chief said the department has cut services over the years due to difficult financial times. Gone are the Youth, Traffic and DWI divisions. That work is now spread out over the entire staff.
Overtime pay has risen from $125,600 in 2002 to $235,000 projected for this year, but Racicot said that it is offset somewhat by federal and state reimbursements of about $60,000.
“Plus, any overtime we have, it is for a specific duty. Someone is actually doing something that needs to be done.
“We don’t have guys come in on overtime and sit around and wait for something to happen,” he said, in an obvious reference to the City Fire Department, which has been the focus of budget scrutiny by city officials.
Another major expense for City Police is health insurance. Premiums cost the department $565,860 in 2002. In 2013, the benefit will cost nearly $2 million.
Police officers pay 15 to 25 percent of their health-care premiums, depending on their title and length of service, a change that was negotiated into the contract three years ago.
Payments to the Retirement System, which are set by the state, have also risen dramatically in the budget. In 2002, retirement costs for the Police Department were $31,505. In 2013, they will be nearly $1 million.
For the whole city, the contribution to the state plan has gone from $17,700 in 2000 to more than $3 million per year.
Payments to the state system for uniformed public-safety employees, such as police officers and firefighters, cost more because of the dangers associated with the job.
City Police officers work 12-hour shifts that start and end at various times.
“We obviously don’t need as many guys at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning as we do at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, so we arrange the shifts to give us the best coverage for certain periods of time,” Racicot said.
While the city has a population of just under 20,000, it grows during the day as residents from outside arrive for work and business, requiring more police presence, the chief said.
Officers come in 30 minutes before a shift begins so they can get ready. In addition to suiting up with body armor, weapons and other utility tools, officers must make sure they have all their communication and information assets ready to go.
The officers do not get paid for coming in early, Racicot notes, whereas members of the City Fire Department get one full day of pay per year for coming in early to get ready for the next shift.
Racicot said the incoming Fire Department shift is supposed to check in with the outgoing firefighters to get updated on the events of the past 24 hours and get their gear and sleep areas ready.
He suggests that just the shift officer should come in early so he can brief the rest of the platoon when they come in, instead of having all nine members come in early for extra time off.
“Our guys don’t do that,” Racicot said. “Like I said, we are an awake and operating department 24 hours a day, seven days per week.”
In addition to running the Police Department, Racicot also oversaw the Fire Department, by appointment from the mayor, from May 2011 to May 2012 as the city searched for a new fire chief.
The Police Department produces some revenue, which goes into the city’s general fund.
In 2007, police brought in $264,629 from fines and tickets. In 2008, its revenue was $259,356; in 2009, $270,993; in 2010, $245,592; in 2011, $307,677; and last year, $251,808.
Racicot said the department used to earn more, but the two parking-enforcement-officer jobs were slashed down to just a half-time position, which reduced revenue.
The City Police budget gets some help in the form of asset-seizure funding. That money is generated from arrests, usually involving drugs and drug money, by all area law-enforcement agencies.
In other words, if someone carrying $500,000 is arrested at the U.S./Canadian border, the City Police Department, State Police and Clinton County Sheriff’s Department are among the agencies that will share a portion of the confiscated funds.
In 2008, the department received $114,569, and that figure has risen steadily to $626,791 in 2010 and $943,368 last year.
“People say that we have everything here. Well, we’ve been able to put ourselves in the 21st century with technology and training, and it’s all because of that drug money,” Racicot said.
“We are fortunate because other cities our size are not in proximity of a border, and they don’t get as much asset-seizure funding.”
The Press-Republican examined the police budgets and staffing of three similar-sized communities: Ogdensburg, Oneonta and Oswego.
Plattsburgh, Oneonta and Oswego are all home to college campuses — definitely a factor in terms of law-enforcement demands.
In Oneonta, the 2012 Police Department budget was $3.3 million, half the size of Plattsburgh’s.
The department is authorized for 28 law-enforcement personnel, but Police Chief Dennis Nayor said they are presently at 26, so it is considerably smaller than Plattsburgh, at 56.
The force covers just under 3 square miles, which includes about 15,000 people, two colleges and a bustling downtown, Nayor said.
The department’s budget was $1.9 million in 2002 and $2.5 million in 2007. Its size hasn’t grown in that time, Nayor said, and that low-growth trend goes back 50 years.
Fine and forfeiture revenue in 2012 was $325,000.
Officers work five eight-hour shifts a week, regularly scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m.
The starting salary for an officer last year was $37,500, and the top salary is $55,500. For sergeants, those figures are $58,208 and $65,413, respectively.
“We are constantly reviewing everything from organizational structure to staffing to see if it is sufficient for what we do,” Nayor said.
The Oswego Police Department 2012 budget was about $5.44 million.
Oswego Police Capt. David Lizotte said they cover an area of 11.2 square miles. The city has a population of about 18,200, a little less than Plattsburgh, and is also home to a SUNY campus.
The budget allows up to 51 officers but has only 42 at present. The starting salary is $36,728, with the highest at $57,216.
The department brought in a little more than $303,000 in revenue last year, mainly from fines, parking tickets and impound fees.
Officers work four eight-hour shifts, followed by two days off, he said.
The department has not seen any staffing increases in several years, Lizotte said, but has grown in other ways.
“We’ve had a lot of changes as far as specialties,” he said.
Among them is a Special Response Team and, soon, a K-9 unit.
“We have a lot of specialized training, so we are more qualified and efficient,” Lizotte said.
The Ogdensburg Police Department 2012 budget was $3.3 million, also half the size of Plattsburgh’s, with revenue of about $450,000.
The department includes 28 police officers. Salaries for 2012 range from $50,340 for the highest-paid officer to $38,722 for the lowest-paid officer.
Police Chief Richard Polniak Jr. said the department has been about the same size for the past 10 years. At one point, it had 29 officers, but one position was eliminated five or six years ago.
A school resource officer later brought the number of officers to 29, but “that position ended last year in December,” Polniak said.
The Police Department covers the whole city, an area of about 8 square miles and population of 11,104 in 2011.
Operations include three eight-hour shifts each day, with five to six people per shift, including a sergeant, patrol officers and a dispatcher.
Specialized assignments include detectives, a Dive Team, Bicycle Patrol, Arson Investigation Team and an Accident Investigation Team.
City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak says he believes the City Police Department budget is well spent and what the public wants.
Instead, he has focused mostly on reducing the Fire Department budget.
“In difficult economic times, we need to prioritize how we spend tax dollars. The Fire Department budget and model are no longer affordable in its present form. Serious structure fires have been reduced due to much improved construction codes. The city has four very qualified volunteer companies on our borders, which we cannot utilize as needed due to union contract language.
“And the (Fire Department) contract — with 24-hour shifts, paying employees to sleep and not work Sundays or holidays when on shift and the required manning clause — does not allow the city to save on personnel costs or improve efficiencies, so changes must be made,” he said.
“The Police Department budget is larger, but the problems we deal with in this department are increasing. Escalating drug use, meth labs, burglaries, gun use and domestic violence are just some of these issues on the rise.
‘The police contract is more affordable and efficient than the fire union contract.”
Email Joe LoTemplio: email@example.com
THE COST OF SAFETY