City PD staffing at center of hearing

The Ogdensburg Police Department, 800 Park St. Matt Curatolo/The Journal

OGDENSBURG — Only a handful of residents spoke out on the 2022 preliminary budget during a public hearing Monday, all calling for the Ogdensburg City Council to add three police officers to next year’s spending plan.

The proposed 2022 budget of $12,977,972 calls for a tax rate cut of 10%. The tax rate would fall from $17.87 per thousand of assessed value to $15.88, the lowest the tax rate has been since 2010. The proposed budget also calls for 12 vacant positions to be cut — seven police officers, three firefighters, a Department of Public Works worker and another city staff member.

Four residents made comments during the public hearing.

A letter from Ronald Bouchard was read by City Clerk Cathy Jock. The letter commented on the city receiving two grants from the state Financial Restructuring Board last week, one for up to $550,000 to help with the cost of incentives that were given to firefighters taking early retirement and another for $950,000 to purchase a new fire truck needed to improve the function of the fire department with reduced staffing.

Mr. Bouchard discussed the FRB recommendation that the city could operate with as few as 20 firefighters and that board members had stated that they were not fire experts and that “all decisions need to be made locally, out of safety, out of service, with the residents and the administration.”

“So the Board member was making it clear that they only make recommendations; the final decisions are up to the municipality, based on what’s safe and effective,” Mr. Bouchard wrote.

He also wrote that a board member stated that contracts “just can’t be ignored,” and he asked whether the FRB was aware that the city had violated the fire contract and is spending money on legal fees fighting the alleged contract violations?

Mr. Bouchard offered a suggestion to council to use the $550,000 reimbursement to hire three police officers and three firefighters, to get to 20, for 2022.

“And then apply again for the SAFER Grant in 2022, to fully fund four additional firefighters for 2023-2025. If the SAFER Grant is awarded, the contract dispute could be settled,” Mr. Bouchard wrote. “This suggestion gives the city manager what he’s asked for. A solution, and money to pay for police and fire. Just because he doesn’t prioritize public safety, doesn’t mean he should dismiss ways to fund it.”

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, SAFER grant program is distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities.

The city applied for the 2021 SAFER round in the spring. The Ogdensburg department has never received money from the program, according to the SAFER website.

Michael Tooley called in to voice concerns about the significant reduction, by 37%, in public safety employees over two years if the staffing included in the proposed 2022 budget is adopted. He spoke about Lt. Mark Kearns, the department’s acting police chief, who had called for council to add three police officers to the budget, from 18 sworn officers to 21 for next year.

“In simple terms, I guess, if we keep the property tax revenue as is in 2022, lower the sales tax budget by $250,000 to be even more conservative, that leaves $300,000 in revenue to fund the three police officers requested,” Mr. Tooley said, adding that the city should also fund an in-house comptroller and a three-person staff in the comptroller’s office.

Sgt. Matt Erwin, president of the Police Supervisory Unit, spoke about staffing levels at the police department and that the 18 officers budgeted in the proposed budget is too low.

“The proposed cuts would leave us at 18 officers, compared to 29 just a few years ago. We ask that you strongly reconsider cutting us to that small of a number,” Sgt. Erwin said. “Chief Kearns has decreased his budget request of 24 officers and asked for a bare minimum 21 officers to do our daily police functions. This is not a number that was reached lightly, it still means our officers cannot get the time off they request at times, and that we are minimum staffed regularly. It is the most efficient number the department can operate at while still completing the work it is tasked to do.”

Sgt. Erwin said that as of Nov. 17, the department has responded to 9,300 complaints, which is 477 handled per sworn officer, based on this year’s average of 19.5 officers.

That number, Sgt. Erwin said, is much higher than in the Massena Police Department, which has handled 7,200, or 360 complaints per officer during the same period with 20 sworn officers and almost double the overtime. He added that the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, with 32 sworn members, handled 11,100 complaints including 1,800 transport complaints, averaging 347 per officer.

“We are not asking you to give us 24 officers to balance this load, we are only asking you to give us 21 and we will continue to do more with less,” Sgt. Erwin said. “We understand you are cutting taxes and trying to be fiscally responsible. We appreciate that sentiment but are asking for there to be a balance point where you save money for the city but still have an adequate police service.”

The last resident to speak was Penny Sharrow, who agreed with the statements from Mr. Bouchard about the FRB grant usage and Sgt. Erwin to the council on the police department staffing.

“I just can’t understand, you talk about laying people off and you’re increasing salaries of people in that building right there and we haven’t got money and you’re laying safety off?” she asked.

Following the public hearing during old business, City Manager Stephen P. Jellie said that the budget vote will be held during the next council meeting on Dec. 6, when councilors will be able to debate any revisions to the 2022 plan.

Deputy Mayor John A. Rishe said that he wouldn’t back raising both the water and sewer rates at the same time and would support adding two more officers to the budget.

“I’d support two more officers, there’s only two vacant positions if we can come up with the money — I think we can,” Mr. Rishe said of a 20-officer compromise to the requested 21 officers. “Those are the only changes I have.”

“I think the 21 is a compromise. I know to be effective they need 24 and I think 21 is still going to put a significant amount of stress,” Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle said. “We heard the reports tonight from Matt Erwin about our workloads are at least a third more than most of the other agencies around us.”

Councilor Nichole L. Kennedy agreed with Mr. Skamperle and stated that she was alarmed by the types of crime being perpetrated in the city and was comfortable with 21 police officers.

“Looking out for our community, I think 21 based on the chief’s, pretty much, plea to us, is what we can do to support them so they can continue to support our families and community,” Mrs. Kennedy said.

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(1) comment

DJT

SLC has more police per populations then is needed. My God they are everywhere you go. We have a mayor who has done what he said he would do. REDUCE taxes. Cuts needed are made. Minority are the complainers!!! They are the civil servants of today!!!!Me me not the city.

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