Police Overtime Costs Rise as Manpower Drops
Overtime costs in the Fair Lawn Police Department are up 65 percent since 2007.
This article is the first in a series about the largely unseen effects of the police department's low staffing levels
With the recent resignation of Officer Juan Rodriguez, Fair Lawn’s police force is again operating at 54 officers -- 10 fewer than it had in 2009, when an analysis determined the staff was undermanned compared to other police departments in the county and state.
The reduced crime rate, while significant, also masks some of the more insidious effects that low police force levels have had on the department and the borough as a whole – including as they relate to departmental overtime costs.
A Patch analysis has found that since 2009, when the borough staffed 64 officers, police overtime and comp time costs have risen by $192,368, or 57.5 percent.
“We do the best we can,” said Chief Erik Rose, regarding the department’s constant struggle to contain overtime costs. “We make sure that it’s controlled where we can, but remembering we’re an emergency service. It’s a situation where if somebody’s out sick in some of the other departments, their work can wait. In our situation, we have minimum staffing.”
Minimum patrol staffing means a minimum of five officers on the road at all times, consisting of a sergeant or acting sergeant and an officer stationed in each of the town’s four quadrants.
“We don’t go below that because our first concern has to be the ability to respond to calls from the residents,” Rose said.
Overtime issues arise when officers call out sick or are hurt on the job and miss time.
“If [the illness or injury] is long term, we can relocate somebody,” he said, “but as our staffing drops, we have less ability to relocate somebody. If somebody gets hurt and they’re out for three weeks that can be a situation where they were scheduled to work and now it generates overtime.”
The 2010 dissolution of the department’s traffic unit – whose primary function had been to enforce rules of the road and oversee pedestrian safety – is one of the primary drivers of the overtime increase.
“I used to be able to call guys out of the traffic unit – they’d be in the bullpen, if you will,” Rose said. “The loss of the traffic unit has deprived us of the ability to – not for short-time overtime issues, but for long-time overtime issues -- relocate personnel there.”
In recent years, the department’s emphasis on limiting overtime has, in some instances, actually caused it to stop applying for state or federal grant money.
Some grants limit the per hour costs they will cover per officer, which means that if a grant pays a maximum of $50 per hour per officer, but an officer makes more than that, the remainder would have to be paid as overtime by the department.
“As officer salary rises,” Rose said, “we have to look at the standpoint of, we’re trying to control overtime the best we can, so maybe we don’t apply for that grant.”
Earlier this year, the police department had to scrap a DWI enforcement grant it had been receiving twice annually since 2007, because of its affect on overtime.
The state's "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over," grant reimburses the department only up to $50 per hour per officer, a rate that just three of the department's then-55 officers made less than in overtime.
With the average overtime rate for sworn members of the department at $79.06, it would need to cover $2,557.28 in overtime not covered by the state, Capt. Joseph Cook wrote in an internal email to Chief Rose back in April.
"Though I never thought I would ever say this," Cook wrote, underlining the words for emphasis. "I am reccomending that the department does not apply for this grant opportunity."
Rose agreed that the potential overtime costs associated with the grant made it untenable for the department in 2012.
"With the budget in limbo and remaining an uncertainty, there is always the possibility that we could suffer further cuts and be faced with a situation of doing a good thing for improved traffic safety, but running over our overtime budget," he replied.
Rose said on Friday that the department’s overtime costs so far this year are on par with budgeted projections, but added that he’d prefer if they came in lower than expected.
|Comp Time Costs||$114,748||$125,717||$115,246.64||$118,547.88||$116,265.50||$238,194.40|
|Combined OT and Comp Time Costs||$318,741||$316,242||$362,672||$334,209||$408,013||$526,577|