by nathan oster
Cutting an officer from the police force could save the town more than $10,000 annually, but it would hardly be a good tradeoff if it resulted in a decrease in services, including the end of 24-hour police coverage.
That, as much as anything else, seemed to be the consensus that emerged from a town council work session that was held Monday night at Town Hall and attended by approximately 25 community residents, most of them vocal supporters of the GPD.
Councilman Ross Jorgensen, who serves as the police commissioner, announced at the outset that the scope of the work session would be limited to a proposal to switch from a five-man police department to a four-man department.
Discussion about recent events in Greybull — and in particular, the arrest of Councilman Myles Foley and his girlfriend/business partner Lori Davis by members of the GPD, who were carrying out an arrest warrant — was ruled off limits.
With the exception of only a few vague references, council members and other attendees stuck to those ground rules throughout the 90-minute session, which began with presentations by Greybull Police Chief Bill Brenner and Administrator/Finance Director Paul Thur.
Citing information gleaned from citydata.com, Brenner pointed out that while the town’s population has grown by 1.8 percent since 2000, its crime rate has actually dropped. The U.S. average is 319.1. In 2001 and 2002, it was 225 and 261.1. In 2008, it was 125.5. It surged to 190.7 in 2009 before dropping again in 2010 to 161.7.
Brenner also noted that with five officers, the town is right in line with a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, which was based on 2007 data and which showed an average of 2.7 officer per 1,000 in towns with populations between 1,000 and 2,499.
The U.S. average, according to citydata.com, is 3.0 officers per 1,000 people.
Brenner then transitioned to providing historical background, reminding the council that the GPD was “facing lack of administration, turnover and corruption” before the policing of the town was turned over to the sheriff’s department in 2004.
Since it was re-established in 2007, the GPD has become, in Brenner’s words, “a strong law enforcement agency with good leadership, well-trained officers and more resources than it has ever had.”
The town’s budget for the current fiscal year is $545,500, which includes $23,000 for animal control, something which in the past fell under the umbrella of the public works. Even at $545,500, the GPD’s budget is “comparable to towns our size,” Brenner said, adding that it has only “fluctuated minimally” in the last six years.
Brenner said it would be unwise to trim an officer because the town would still need 24-hour coverage, his position would become non-exempt (meaning he’d no longer be salaried, but rather on an hourly wage).
In addition, he noted that administration would suffer due to the increased workload, citizens would get inadequate service, the GPD would become reactive instead of proactive in terms of dealing with crime, officers would burn out and liability issues would result if officers are asked to work too many hours.
Brenner cited among his department’s accomplishments a good reputation, high standards and a track record of “ridding the community of gangs, drugs, domestic violence, drunk drivers and pedophiles.”
He said most people in town probably didn’t realize that at one time, 14 members of the street gang, Fresno Bulldogs, lived in Greybull. The majority of them, including a couple of locals, are now behind bars. Brenner said fewer people are driving drunk, too. In 2008, the first year back for the GPD, there were “between 32 and 37 drunk driving arrests.” Last year, there were only nine.
After noting changes in law enforcement, Brenner moved into legal guidelines, and in particular, the Fair Labor Standards Act. One of the key provisions is that officers cannot be “on call” and restricted in their personal lives without being paid.
“You have to pay them their hourly wage…you can’t get around that,” he said.
The GPD is also legally required to pay and reimburse officers for continued training.
Brenner ended his presentation by emphasizing the importance of 24-hour coverage, which he believes is a deterrent to crime. He said the overnight clerks at the Maverik Country Store, which is open 24/7, are “comforted” by the sight of a police cruiser driving through the parking lot in the middle of the night.
He said response time would impacted if there wasn’t a GPD officer on duty 24/7. If an officer is asleep, his response time would probably be in the eight- to 15-minute range. But if he’s awake and on duty, it would be closer to one to three minutes.
“Can Greybull operate on a four-man police department? Yes. Can it operate on a one-man department? Yes. But in both cases, you have to ask, what kind of services are you going to get for that?”
Thur’s presentation focused entirely on the five-man vs. four-man question and was based on consultations he’d had with Jorgensen, the police commissioner, and Brenner, the police chief.
A four-man department would look much different than the current five-man department.
For one thing, officers would be required to work 10-hour shifts. Currently, shifts last eight hours. In addition, there would be four hours each day when no officer was on duty, and the police chief would see his “administrative” time cut from the present 32 hours per week to eight. In the 33 weeks when the GPD is fully staffed at four officers, each officer as well as the chief would get 2.5 hours of overtime per week.
But those overtime numbers would shoot up dramatically during the other 19 weeks of the year when the GPD is shorthanded either because an officer is on vacation, away at training or down with an illness. During those weeks, the three remaining officers would be required to put in 12-hour shifts, the number of “no patrol” hours would climb, as would weekly overtime hours (four hours each week for the chief, 10.5 hours for each of the other officers).
When taken together, the annual total would be 1,836 hours of standby time, 646.5 overtime officers for the officers and 158.5 hours of overtime for the chief. As an administrative and overtime-exempt employee, the chief currently does not get paid for any of his time beyond 40 hours per week.
Thur’s presentation also included a look at how switching to a four-man department would impact the compensation for the department’s full-time employees. Currently there are six, including the clerk, whose total salary is $35,172.
The chief, who currently doesn’t get overtime or standby/on-call pay, makes a total salary of $52,643. The sergeant, who does, earns a salary of $46,244. The three remaining officers, who also get paid for overtime and standby/on-call hours logged, earn salaries ranging from $40,934 to $41,983.
Their total compensation packages, however, are much higher when benefits are considered. For the current fiscal year, the chief’s package is $79,326, the sergeants is $64,427, the three officers come in at $63,187, $62,846 and $57,832, and the clerk’s is $50,680.
The bottom line figure for the GPD, as it’s currently constituted, is $388,400 for FY 14.
According to Thur’s presentation, the town would save only about $5,000 in salaries and benefits if one officer would be trimmed from the force. That’s because the remaining officers would make considerably more due to overtime and standby/on-call pay.
Over the course of a year as a four-man department, the chief would be required to log 150 hours of overtime, the officers 645 hours of overtime and everyone 1,836 hours of standby time, for a grand total of 2,631 hours.
The result would be significant boosts in pay for all the officers. The chief’s total compensation package would climb to $100,770, the sergeant’s to $77,333, and the officers to $74,988 and $69,339. The clerk’s would remain the same, at $50,680.
Looking at the big picture, the town would pay out more in salaries and wages but less in benefits if the GPD was cut from five officers to four. The difference between the two would be around $5,200 to the “savings” side. The town could also expect other line items in its budget to fall as well, if one officer would be trimmed. When things were factored in, the total savings came to $10,660.
When the floor was turned over to the public, no one voiced support for the four-man force.
Rod Collingwood, who filed for town council last year and applied to fill the vacancy left by Bob Graham, said the town might save $10,000, but that it would lose money overall if the officer whose position is cut moves away, taking with him money that would be spent in the community.
“When you’re talking about losing a household, it’s something like 48 percent of their income (which would be spent in the local economy) that goes too,” he said. “I fail to see how this would pan out money-wise for the city.”
Some in attendance stated that requiring officers to work additional overtime hours would eventually lead to burnout and a higher turnover rate, which in turn would require the town to hire and train additional officers.
Brenner estimated that four officers have left the GPD since 2007. One was terminated, three resigned. In all four cases, the GPD had to pay for their replacements to go through the police academy.
Jan Johnson, who left the council in December, admitted that she was “one of the culprits” who created the five-man force. “When we had a four-man department, I was on Bill all the time about overtime … and that was because the town was on me all the time about overtime.
“Trust me, you wouldn’t be saving money going to a four. Overtime would eat you alive.”
Brenner said he and the other officers would personally make more if a position was cut, but that it “its not about me, it’s about what’s best for the community.”
Councilman Bob McGuire said he has been, and will continue to be a proponent of the five-man department. Now a sheriff’s deputy, he was once a member of a four-man GPD in the early 1980s.
The police chief at that time, around 1984, “was working to get a five-man department” he said. “So I’ve worked on both sides of the equation and the five-man department does make a huge difference. I know what it’s like when there are only three of you, and what it’s like when there are only two of you.”
McGuire said he’s always be a proponent of the five-man department.
Kay Fleek, like Johnson a former member of the council, said in visiting with people on the street and who come into her salon, she has found universal support for the idea of keeping a five-man department.
“I visited with EMTs who talked about how much they appreciate having officers get (to the scene) first,” she said. Her older clientele doesn’t care as much about the $8,000 to $10,000 in savings. “They want to know an officer is out there in case they need to go to the hospital. For their own safety and how they feel about life, they very much want to have officers on duty 24 hours.”
Mike Laird, a member of the Greybull EMT team, and Mike Cowan, of the Atwood service, echoed those sentiments.
“I tell you there are some houses in this town we (as EMTs) don’t want to go into unless there is law enforcement present,” said Laird. “We don’t even want to attempt it.”
Laird said police officers also help ambulance workers at the scene, noting there are times when the EMTs wouldn’t have been able to help overweight people back to his or her feet by themselves.
Added Cowan, “The officer is there to protect us. Several times we’ve had people come at us, saying they don’t want us to take their loved ones away. … Often times, the only thing standing between us and being hurt is having the officers there.”
Other members of the audience who expressed similar sentiments in support of the current five-man force included Officer Greg Hess, Animal Control Officer Doug Youngerman, Ron Fiene, Lori Collingwood, Lindsay Casey and former Mayor Frank Houk, who said, “Five is a little expensive, but it isn’t worth the difference” if the force is trimmed to four.
Several in the audience also questioned why the GPD’s budget was being so closely scrutinized, when those of other departments were not. Jorgensen said the workshop was “just the start,” and that each department’s budget would be reviewed in the months ahead. Next up is administration.
Bev Jacobs, who works in the town’s central office, said, “This is the best group of officers we’ve every had,” and that, “Some things in life are not worth $10,000.” She emphasized their integrity and said that when tragedies have occurred in other parts of the country, people never came away complaining about having too many police officers or firefighters.
Councilmen Myles Foley and Clay Collingwood, who had called for the study of a four-man department, were tight-lipped throughout the discussion.
Foley said the workshop was a good exercise. “I’m glad we’re doing this,” he said. “It provided me with a lot of information, and gave me clarity on some things.”
When approached after the meeting, Collingwood said he planned to spend time digesting what he learned. “But if all we can save is $10,000, it’s probably not a very good value,” he said.