The price of peacekeeping

Police Chief Clayton Keefe.

How much police protection do Woodstock residents want, and what are they willing to pay for it?

Guided by public input, Town Board members will grapple with those questions later this year, when they formally begin work on the 2013 municipal budget. In an effort to get a head start on that process, supervisor Jeremy Wilber on February 14 presented an analysis of actual expenditures on police services in 2011 — similar data for the current year are not yet available — and their impact on taxpayers.

In 2011, Wilber told listeners at the board meeting, total Police Department expenses, including wages and benefits, equipment, and contractual obligations, amounted to $1,150,460, or roughly a quarter of all general fund spending. The owner of a property assessed at the townwide average value, $272,000, paid $195.84 in taxes for police services, according to the supervisor’s calculations, which are based on multiplying a property’s assessed value by 72 cents (0.72).

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Addressing the board, police chief Clayton Keefe detailed the structure and operation of his department, which comprises ten full-time officers (unchanged since 1987, he said) and nine part-time officers, five of whom were added in 2010. The police provide around-the-clock protection, normally in the form of a two-officer team working an eight-hour shift. A third officer is occasionally added, as in the case of summertime events that draw crowds to town.

Resident Joe Nicholson suggested that police coverage might be reduced at times, such as winter weeknights, when the town’s streets are quiet and criminal activity is unlikely. Keefe responded that incidents requiring police intervention were hard to predict, so 24/7 coverage was prudent. That chief added that the safety of officers was served by assigning a two-person team to each shift.

Wages, totaling nearly $700,000, accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 2011 police budget, with most of the remainder composed of retirement benefits (roughly $154,000), Social Security ($53,000), medical insurance ($88,000), and workers’ compensation ($46,000).

 

Stable budget foreseen

Wilber said that he expected the cost of police services in 2012 to approximate the 2011 outlay, in part because members of the department agreed to forgo a scheduled salary increase of 2 percent in exchange for the Town Board’s pledge not to replace the Emergency Dispatch Department with the county’s 911 service. The supervisor expressed the hope that an inevitable increase in the cost of benefits will be offset by a gain in revenue from county sales and mortgage tax receipts, thus aiding the town’s efforts to comply with the state’s 2 percent cap on property tax increases.

This week’s review of the police budget followed the board’s similar analysis, on January 17, of the dispatch unit, whose 2012 budget is $308,849. The council’s survey of what Wilber called “big-ticket” budgetary lines will continue, at a meeting in March, with a review of the Highway Department.

As the police chief, Keefe — who joined the local department as a part-time constable in 1984 and is its longest-serving member — earned $70,000 last year. The salaries of full-time officers range from just under $40,000 to just under $50,000. Part-time officers are paid at an hourly rate of $20.30.

Last year, as the town struggled to cope with a sizable budget deficit, Keefe was credited with cutting costs by assigning lower-paid part-time officers whenever possible to overtime duty. According to Keefe’s statistical summary, in 2011 the department logged 865 overtime hours — 579 on patrol; 209 on special detail, e.g., summertime events; and 77 on courtroom duty — out of a total 20,721 man-hours worked in the course of the year.

 

Bailiff costs increase

Recent developments, however, may increase the tab for overtime-related work. At the request of the local justice court’s two judges and two clerks, said Wilber, the town will resume its previous practice of employing Woodstock police officers to serve as bailiffs at court sessions. The decision reverses a policy, followed last year, in which part-time officers from other municipalities functioned as bailiffs. According to Wilber, the court personnel said that they would be more comfortable in the presence of Woodstock officers, whose familiarity with the local population would enhance courtroom security.

The policy change will double the annual expenditure for bailiffs, to $5,500 this year from $2,730 in 2011, based on an increase in hours worked, to 273 from a previous 182. The duration of court sessions is about four hours for criminal court and three hours for traffic court. In what Wilber described as an accommodating gesture, the Woodstock police department agreed that officers would receive 1.5 hours in compensatory (“comp”) time — that is, time off — for every hour served as a bailiff, instead of being paid at 1.5 times their salaried rate (“time and a half”).

As a result, part-time officers, earning $20.30 per hour, will fill in when full-time officers utilize their comp time. The funds required to pay the additional cost of bailiff service will be drawn from the justice court budget, said Wilber in an interview after the Town Board meeting.

Meanwhile, as announced by Wilber at a previous meeting, the board has decided to resume the practice of having local police officers prosecute their own traffic tickets in the justice court, a function previously served by an outside prosecutor hired by the town. The budgetary impact of the change may be minimal, provided the justices achieve their goal of efficiently packaging, or combining, all tickets issued by a given officer for consideration at a court session when that officer will be present.

In other matters related to local law enforcement, the board approved the permanent appointment of Emmett Vedder and Brian Williams as full-time police officers. Vedder and Williams had previously been hired as provisional replacements for two officers who resigned from the Woodstock force to accept positions elsewhere. The board also authorized the supervisor to sign an agreement employing Dana D. Blackmon as a special prosecutor in the justice court.

 

Other items on the meeting’s agenda included the following:

Town Hall deadline. The board extended by two weeks, to March 7, the deadline for contractors to submit bids for the proposed renovation of Town Hall. The extension was approved for the purpose of allowing more applicants to bid on the project, although interest thus far has been lively, as town clerk Jackie Earley has responded to 40 requests for specifications. Separate contracts will be awarded for the job’s various components, which include general contracting; electrical, plumbing, heating, and drilling work, respectively; and, possibly as another separate element, the installation of a phone system.

The board also initiated plans to hire a clerk of the works, or project manager, for the renovation, with preference given to residents of the area. Wilber said that has received one informal inquiry, which he will pass along to councilmen Bill McKenna and Ken Panza, who agreed to review applications for the position.

In a related development Wilber announced the receipt of a $20,000 construction grant that will reduce the cost of the Town Hall renovation. The supervisor praised the justice court for applying for the grant, which was awarded by the New York State Unified Court System. The Woodstock court is one of 402 town courts in the state to receive such funding this year.

 

Parking fee. After a prolonged discussion the board tabled a resolution to continue to charge local businesses a fee of $100 for each on-site parking space that the zoning law requires but they cannot provide. Until it was reduced in recent years, the fee had been $750 per space. Collected fees are deposited in an account designated for the improvement or expansion of municipal parking facilities. The resolution was on the agenda as a result of the board’s prior decision to review the policy, known as the “in lieu of parking” (ILP) fee, annually.

Councilman Jay Wenk, a longtime opponent of the fee, advocated its elimination. Alluding to a song lyric, he said, “This is a perfect example of being robbed with a fountain pen,” as opposed to a six-gun. In contrast, councilwoman Cathy Magarelli suggested raising the fee slightly. She warned that attempts to rewrite the zoning law in order to modify the policy would be foolhardy. McKenna deemed the policy worthwhile, maintaining that it encouraged business owners to preserve existing on-site parking spaces and served to prevent misguided plans to expand without adequate parking.

Hovering over the debate was Wenk’s longstanding proposal to convert the town-owned lot on Mountain View Avenue to a paid-parking basis, using funds from the designated account, which reportedly contains about $33,000. Without endorsing the conversion, the board agreed to proceed with preliminary plans, developed by Wenk in consultation with highway superintendent Mike Reynolds, to improve the Mountain View lot by delineating parking spaces on the surface. Panza advised colleagues to consider ways to replenish the parking account if the town planned to withdraw funds from it, as it has already done to expand the Upper Comeau parking lot. Also in need of improvement, said Panza, is the Lower Comeau lot, whose use as a parking area, rather than a possible site for town offices, now seems assured.

 

Labor consultant. The board authorized the supervisor to sign an agreement with Michael Richardson, the town’s longtime consultant on matters related to labor and employment, for services associated with upcoming contract negotiations with the Police Department and the Communications Workers of America, which represents a number of town employees. Wenk, who in the past has opposed the town’s retention of Richardson, abstained in a vote that was otherwise unanimous.

 

Appointments. The board appointed Timothy Keefe to the Board of Assessment Review. Keefe’s term will expire on September 30, 2016; he will serve as the agency’s chair in 2012. The board also appointed Mary Burke as the town’s representative for 2012 on the Ulster County Environmental Management Council.

 

GIS training. Council members deferred action on a proposal to spend about $1,100 to train seven or eight town employees in the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology. Magarelli balked at authorizing the expenditure before the town receives the results of a CPA’s audit of its balance sheet, which is expected in March. The GIS training is scheduled to begin in April. Meanwhile, the board routinely approved recent audits of the offices of the supervisor, town clerk, tax collector, and justice court. The audits found no irregularities.++

 

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