After another look at my 17 pages of budget notes, let me assure you the council was nothing if not thorough in questioning police and fire representatives Tuesday.
I will not attempt to report everything (that would be a transcript), but will give some highlights.
General issues included staffing, workman’s compensation, phone systems, quality of life issues and equipment needs. The council will hear from each of the city’s three departments and then amend the budget as necessary.
Each council member received a large budget binder earlier, but since then five positions have been eliminated in the Fire Division, Administration & Finance Director Ray Daniels
said. They include one deputy chief, one battalion chief, one lieutenant and two new firefighters. In all, there are 79 firefighters. The Fire Division proposed budget is $8,801,743, up $486,576 from last year.
Police officers have been reduced from 115 to 112 and one civilian post has been eliminated. The Police Division’s proposed budget is $12,856,778, down $856,729 from last year.Staffing
In the Police Division, Chief Edward Santiago
said detectives are having to type up reports for lack of sufficient clerical help.
“We’re hurting for employees,” he said.
Captain Siddeeq El-Amin
said dispatchers are also needed to answer 911 calls around the clock. Captain Steve Soltys
said a minimum of nine are needed. Councilwoman Linda Carter’s
suggestion to use interns would not work, officials said, because 911 dispatchers have to take two weeks’ training and then must be supervised for three months before working on their own.
City Administrator Marc Dashield
said the proposed budget includes 10 fulltime and two part-time dispatchers.
In the Fire Division, Councilman Cory Storch
noted there are 31 management positions and 81 non-management positions. Three management positions are being eliminated, but Storch asked if more reductions could be made. But Allen said, “We are at the lowest level we can get.”
The city’s emergency management coordinator will be moved back into firehouse duty part of the week as a fire inspector.
Due to staffing issues, the Police Division projects $51,000 for overtime and the Fire Division anticipates $46,000, which may be reduced once promotions are made.
Storch questioned the need for two fulltime police officers to be assigned as bodyguards for the mayor, saying he was asking “in the spirit of getting every possible officer on the street.”
Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig
said one of the officers is a sergeant and in a proposed reorganization will have some supervisory responsibilities, so the mayor’s security detail will be less than two fulltime officers.
“Have you done it yet?” Storch asked.
Hellwig said he had not. But then Councilman Harold Gibson
questioned why Storch was making the inquiry, saying security should not be discussed in open session.
“If the administration feels it’s an executive session item, let’s put it on,” Storch said.Workman’s Compensation
Councilman Don Davis
asked both Fire Chief Cecil Allen
and Santiago about workman’s comp expenses. Davis said he could understand cases where people suffered injuries, but disputed recent claims which he said were based on dropping a pen, closing a door or walking down stairs. Davis also objected to cases where a person collects benefits and then sues the city as well.
“I believe some are fraudulent,” he said. “Our insurance premiums are really going through the roof.”
Hellwig said the administration is looking at stretching exercises to prevent lower back injuries.Phone Systems
Davis asked both Police and Fire divisions about their phone service providers and wanted to know whether the whole city should have the same system.
But the two public safety divisions have special plans that allow for speedy connections with multiple users, something other city divisions do not need. Soltys said the Police Division provider also crosses “multiple platforms,” meaning the division can connect with various law enforcement jurisdictions without a problem.Quality of Life
Storch said he wants to see “measurable objectives” to combat speeding, but officials cautioned against goals that could be taken for speeding ticket quotas. But Storch said every year the council talks about measurable objectives.
“I would like to nail it down,” he said, asking for a quarterly report.
Dashield said the city would have to build a baseline of statistics first. Storch said he wanted court data taken into account.
Council members also talked about the use of radar guns and cameras to track infractions.Equipment
The Fire Division needs to have two engines and one heavy duty rescue truck replaced. In addition, the self-contained breathing apparatus devices need to be replaced at some point and the division needs more thermal imaging cameras.
The SCBA replacement will cost about $100,000 (not in the current budget).
The Police Division is working with the Fire Division on development of a global command center and the type of equipment needed to respond to major events is still being formulated.
Other news flashes Tuesday included word that the auxiliary police are nearly defunct. These are trained, unpaid officers who do not carry weapons and mainly help out with traffic at big events or in case of emergencies such as hurricanes. Santiago spoke in favor of their usefulness, but Dashield called the program “dysfunctional.”
The City Council will hold its next budget session from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The Department of Public Works & Urban Development, which also includes economic development, is up next. As you can see, these sessions are interesting for what comes out in the discussions.--Bernice Paglia