Since contract negotiations between Saugerties’ town government and the police department began last month, the two parties have been discussing longevity pay and benefit packages for officers. According to police chief Joseph Sinagra, the department has lost six officers to better-paying New York police departments since 2013.
“In order to honestly evaluate if you’re spending enough money on a police department, you have to look around it,” said Sinagra. “I say with a lot of confidence that we’re not at the top of that list.”
Town supervisor Fred Costello acknowledged the pay disparity between Saugerties and neighboring communities. He feels that the local department offers other opportunities that make Saugerties an attractive option for officers looking for employment.
As far as Sinagra is concerned, Saugerties has the best police department in the county. “In order to maintain that degree of ability, we need to maintain the force we already have,” he said. “Our starting salaries here are pretty comparable to everyone else. Where we fall short is after year one. We’re starting to lose police officers in the first five years to neighboring departments in the county and state.”
Lots of resignations
Most recently, school resource officer (SRO) Larissa Winker was poached by Ulster County’s sheriff’s department. Her resignation was accepted at the April 4 town-board meeting. In the meantime, another Saugerties officer with SRO training has stepped in. Interviewees are being considered to replace her.
“I lost one candidate two weeks ago,” said Sinagra. “Once they looked at the numbers, they reluctantly declined to come here and indicated that they’d be losing money.”
Last year, detective Courtney Loertscher left Saugerties for Buchanan in Westchester County, where Sinagra says she is now earning over $80,000 per year. After less than four years on the Saugerties force; Saugerties High’s previous SRO, Jonathan Tiernan, left the department last year to work in Poughkeepsie. Poughkeepsie also recruited officer Bob Haberski in 2009.
In 2015, Eric Cussick left the Saugerties police to work in Shawangunk. He later took a job with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Mike Ashford was lost to the City of New York in 2014.
Within the year, three new employees have been hired. Saugerties has 23 full-time police officers, ten part-time officers, three full-time dispatchers and seven part-time dispatchers.
Senior dispatcher and PBA dispatcher representative Vera White argues that the status quo is also costly. “Consider the money and time lost due to frequent turnover,” said White. “Tax dollars that are invested into employees for their necessary training and equipment, hours spent training and acclimating employees for them only to take their assets to other agencies.”
Frequent turnover is expensive
Vacancies in Civil Service positions are not always expeditiously filled due to test availability issues and exhausted county and municipal lists. In some cases, temporary positions may be granted, but that is not always a guarantee. “These vacancies equal manpower shortages, and that tends to generate unnecessary overtime expenditures to cover these vacant shifts,” White argued. “Those vacant shifts now need to be covered by current staff that is already running at minimum staffing level. As a dispatcher, I need my officers to feel confident that the information I am relaying to them is accurate. This job is not only about proper equipment, training, and procedure. Trust is an important factor but that is difficult to establish when the turnover rate is high.”
PBA police president Sean O’Keefe said that officers who work in departments with higher pay rates ultimately get larger pension payments later in life due to the tiered system of police retirement benefits.
”It’s tough to speculate why an individual would leave. I don’t do exit interviews with them, that’s really done by the administration,” said O’Keefe. “[It seems like] they’re leaving to broaden their horizons, to have a better future for themselves as far as benefit packages or pay. I’m sure there are things that can be done, but we are within our negotiations so I can’t speak about that. I know the town doesn’t want to see anyone else go — there’s a lot of time and effort put into a police officer and you don’t want to just lose them.”
Costello sees a degree of shared recognition on the part of the police and the town. “It’s mutually acknowledged, so I expect the contract to be sensitive to that issue in the end if we’re able to negotiate one. I think we can provide a job opportunity that, on balance, is fair and equitable to our neighboring communities.”
That doesn’t mean that the pay will be equivalent. “Saugerties is a unique town and I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to other communities,” said the town supervisor. “You might make more in a neighboring community, but the demands on police services are different. Saugerties is who we are. We’re a relatively safe community with an active police force and a number of programs where officers can experience different branches of service [within their time here.] If you look at our captain and lieutenant, they are talented enough to work other places, but they choose to work here for comparatively less money. I think that would be true of officers as well.”
It’s not always about money
Both Sinagra and Costello mentioned the range of police training and services offered by the Saugerties police. “Sometimes it’s not always about money. It’s about affording room for growth within the agency,” said Sinagra. “When you afford opportunities, sometimes achieving your personal goals is more important than a high paying salary. We offer a K9 unit. If you want to be a detective we have a detective’s division. We have different divisions within the department. I see that as a way to entice potential candidates. We aren’t just a patrol force.”
If a timely agreement cannot be reached between the town and the police department, an arbitrator will get involved — on the taxpayer’s dime — to draft up and propose a contract compromise. Should the parties not agree, a formal process to impose a settlement on both parties. Costello “doesn’t see it going that far.”
Saugerties puts a lot of time, heart and energy into training its officers, said Costello. He doesn’t want the Saugerties police department to become a training ground for other agencies. But he’s also very much aware of the community’s fiscal difficulties.
Sinagra sees both sides of the matter, too. “At times it’s difficult for our elected officials to balance the budget, especially now that we’re required to stay at a two-percent tax cap,” he acknowledged. “These are challenging times for both the law-enforcement community and our elected officials, and that’s why we work so hard together to provide the best police services we can without breaking the piggy bank. It’s not a problem unique to Saugerties. Throughout the country, we see decreased workforce nationally at a time when we’re experiencing increased calls for service.”