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Cost-saving measures broached at Police Department budget review

Date: 3/8/2010

March 8, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD - In a meeting on Wednesday reviewing his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Police Commissioner William Fitchet told Mayor Domenic Sarno, Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdmann and City Councilors Kateri Walsh and James Ferrera the city's policing efforts would be level funded this year at $38.9 million.

With 92 percent of the budget allocated to salaries and with the conditions placed by collective bargaining, Fitchet said, "There is very little room to cut."

Fitchet, like other department heads, met with Sarno, city councilors and members of the city's financial team last week examining proposed budgets.

Fitchet noted that while the Police Department pursues grants, grant money is decreasing. The Shannon Grant funding from the state has declined, Fitchet noted, from $450,000 in 2008 to $187,000 in 2009. Shannon Grant monies are used to combat and prevent gang activity, he explained. Fitchet isn't sure just how much Shannon Grant funding the city will receive this year.

Fitchet also said the department no longer receives grants for community policing.

Written into the budget is funding to fill vacancies for 17 patrol officers and two sergeants, Fitchet said. The department is facing additional vacancies from potential retirements and by the end of the summer there could be 25 vacancies on the force, he added.

The commissioner said that 10 years ago the department had 138 more officers than it does today, "so these vacancies hurt."

He would like to see 50 officers added to the force, but acknowledged that would be "a very expensive proposition."

Fitchet noted the initial cost to bring a new officer to the department is $100,000 and then $80,000 annually to maintain the officer.

To fill these positions, Fitchet's budget includes the funding for a session of the police academy for about 20 recruits.

Erdmann asked Fitchet several questions aimed at potentially saving money and consolidating services. Erdmann wanted to know what Fitchet thought of a proposal to transfer the repair of police vehicles, such as cruisers, from the police garage to one operated by the Department of Public Works.

While Fitchet said he wouldn't "shut the door" on the idea, he explained the police garage is set up for the rapid repair of cruisers and has specialists to handle the needs of the car's radio and computer systems. He also noted the garage is a secured location so officers do not have to remove weapons stored in the trucks of the cruisers.

Fitchet noted many of the department's cruisers are from 2005. Generally cruisers last from three to five years before the wear and tear of daily use make their maintenance too expensive, he explained. He lauded the department's mechanics and technicians for keeping the cars on the streets and said his budget does include some money for additional vehicles, although not enough to adequately meet the department's needs.

The use of civilians in jobs at police headquarters, freeing more officers for street duty, was also addressed. Fitchet said a number of civilians were added several years ago, but he explained that trained police officers are needed for some positions, such as booking. These officers form a back-up force Fitchet and other commanding officers can quickly deploy to the streets if needed, the commissioner added. More civilians would diminish that capacity.

Fitchet told the officials, "You don't want to be beguiled by the word 'civilianization.'"

Sarno said the city is looking at the potential of using a regional dispatch service as well as a regional lock-up center to save money.

Fitchet noted that among the department's recent accomplishments is the progress the Ordinance Squad has made in addressing quality of life issues in the city. He said the squad has written three times more tickets in 2009 than in 2008.

"We starting to see some compliance," Fitchet said.

The implementation of a computer assisted dispatch system has also helped in getting officers to the most important calls, he added.

The establishment of the Special Victims Unit, which is dedicated to domestic violence, is another new aspect of the department, Fitchet said.

Fitchet said policing in the city is complicated by a "lack of civility." Fighting officers is now common in the apprehension of people, he explained. In 2009 more than 60 officers were injured during the course of their duties.