Shamokin chief of police critical of city finance suggestions
SHAMOKIN - The city's police chief is critical of financial advisers' recommendations to cut his department's costs, scoffing at a suggestion to explore eliminating an entire shift on the work schedule.
"It's ridiculous to say 'eliminate a shift.' There's no way we could ever have one man on a shift. It's a safety issue and it's ridiculous," Edward Griffiths said Friday.
The suggestion was one of many included in an Early Intervention Plan prepared by financial advisers as part of Shamokin's enrollment in an Early Intervention Program for financial recovery. City council hasn't yet formally reviewed the plan, and it has final say on which recommendations to carry out.
When council members meet during a special meeting at 6 p.m. April 28 in city hall, they'll be asked to vote on accepting the plan and subsequently on pursuing recovery through a new avenue: the state's Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities.
Reached Friday, Mayor William D. Milbrand declined comment since the plan hasn't been addressed in full by council.
Wages and benefits across all departments consumed between 80 percent and 90 percent of Shamokin's revenue over a four-year period, according to the plan. A wage freeze for all 26 city employees and increased employee contributions to health care benefits were among its many suggestions, including bargaining for such measures with the 17 members of the police and public works unions.
Asked if he believed the city's current revenue structure could support the wages and benefits of union employees, Griffiths said, "If you manage it correctly, yes."
The police union contract expired at the start of the year. It remains in place until a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified. There is a mandate that a minimum of two officers work each of three shifts seven days a week. The advisers suggest if that cannot be lowered to reduce employee costs, council should review crime data and consider eliminating the least active shift.
Consideration has to be given to Shamokin's finances, Griffiths said, but he questioned the intelligence of suggestions he believes would jeopardize public safety. Officers already seek backup from neighboring departments, including with the recent rash of assaults. Combined with burglaries and associated drug use and other crimes, he said it underscores the need for two officers per shift.
"It won't only put the taxpayers in jeopardy, it will put the officers and their families in jeopardy," Griffiths said, adding that he believes liability insurance would also increase.
At full complement, the police department has 14 full-time officers. It now stands at 11 following a trio of retirements - Detective Robert John in 2008, Cpl. Robert Wolfe in 2009 and Cpl. John Brown in 2012. Griffiths, who himself will retire following his final shift on April 30, estimated the collective savings in salary and benefits at $70,000 for each officer.
"Where did it go? Where's the money?" He asked.
The 11 officers total a combined 152 years on the job. According to city hall, they were paid $722,472.65 total in 2013, an average of $65,679.33 per officer - $13,000 above the base average of $52,596.35.
The higher actual payout is a result of overtime and, more so, compensatory time earned by and paid to the officers as per the terms of their existing union contract. Those costs for all departments in the city are suggested by the financial advisers to be reduced.
Add in benefits calculated by City Hall at $188,788.78 and that figure jumps to $911,261.43 - 74 percent of all police department expenses in the $1,228,237.36 budget for 2013.
The health insurance plan for the police is the same that had been offered to city council members and the solicitor and controller. That benefit was not offered for those officials in 2014.
Other suggestions for the police department include selling off any unused vehicles in the police department's seven-vehicle fleet - the same suggestion that was made of the public works department. Griffiths said that won't work since the newer vehicles will endure increased wear-and-tear as a result and perhaps need to be replaced sooner.
Regionalizing police services with neighboring Coal Township was also suggested, a study of which was agreed to in March with multiple municipalities involved.
Nothing about mismanagement
Griffiths criticized the plan because, as he sees it, it lays all of the blame on city employees and a diminished tax base and fails to address any mismanagement in city hall.
City council members were eligible for the same health benefits as union employees up until it was eliminated from the 2014 budget, Griffiths pointed out. Also, he questioned a series of council-approved expenses in 2013 under the management of former City Clerk Steve Bartos: a raise for the clerk's position, a grant payment to the clerk's wife, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees charged by the Barley Snyder law firm.
He specifically mentioned the Reading firm's charges for advising the city in a Right to Know dispute that favored Stephen Bridy, a Northumberland County commissioner, and for its role in the ongoing negotiation of a new police union contract.
Barley Snyder had billed the city $9,795 through September for its legal representation in the Right to Know case, a cost that increased as the dispute lasted into November. When it was hired in May for the negotiations, council agreed to an hourly rate of $200, with the total not to exceed $8,000.
Shamokin entered Early Intervention in 2008, and Griffiths said city leaders failed to follow the plan.
"Not one thing in there said anything about mismanagement," Griffiths said.