Greenfield Police break down proposed budget increases

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-28-2023 8:02 PM

GREENFIELD — In a presentation of the Police Department’s proposed $3.8 million fiscal year 2024 operating budget Thursday night, law enforcement officials insisted they didn’t aim to “pit departments against each other,” while also countering claims of a “bloated police budget.”

“We heard people in public comment speaking about wanting the schools to be fully funded, and as a father myself … I’m not against that,” Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. told councilors at their Ways & Means Committee meeting on Thursday, referencing comments made by residents earlier that evening as well as during past City Council meetings. “I’m not against any other department or any other entity wanting to do the best for their people. We tried to put together a budget to show we’re not trying to bloat a budget, inflate a budget, or be immoral with our budget.”

Last month, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner submitted a $61.6 million budget proposal for FY24, representing a 6.5% increase over the current budget of $57.9 million. With respect to some of the city’s largest departments, the mayor’s budget proposes an 11.05% increase to the Fire Department’s operating budget, an 11.65% increase to the Police Department’s operating budget, a 6.23% increase to the Public Works Department’s operating budget and a 3% increase to the Greenfield School Department.

Wedegartner noted at the time that her requested FY24 budget represented an overall reduction of $2.7 million compared to department requests. The mayor’s proposed $1.5 million cut to the School Department’s budget, however, has caused the most controversy among residents and school officials.

“I encourage you to find the money to [fully fund the schools] by giving the Police Department a smaller increase than has been requested,” said resident Rachel Gordon, who was among a handful of others to speak on behalf of the schools. “I think the superintendent is not asking for anything extravagant.”

After offering a comparison of previous years’ budget requests, Haigh and Deputy Chief William Gordon took councilors and went through the budget line-by-line, highlighting some of the more significant increases, many of which were contractual.

The proposed budget for salaries recognizes 34 officers, Haigh said. The department is still down two officers, he noted, and the proposed $2.7 million budget for salaries and wages (up from $2.4 in FY23) recognizes necessary promotions as a result. Part-time wages, which were zeroed out to support FY23 budget cuts, were restored in FY24 to $33,000.

“This budget does represent … approximately $80,000 for this year that we will be charging to the grant,” he added, noting the COPS Hiring Grant operates year-to-year from time of hire, as opposed to fiscal year. “We’ve already charged some, or will be, at least, because we have those people already on that are being covered currently by the grant in this fiscal year.”

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Haigh explained that with the incoming new hires, there would be an increase in the budget for police academy training.

Among the other increases discussed was $26,650 for “police accessories.”

“Our tasers are out of warranty this year,” Haigh explained. “This will start a new lease for the department. That’s about $17,000 for the three-year period.”

The increase also accounts for the cost of ammunition, he added, which is required for qualification purposes.

Building and maintenance supplies, additionally, were up $15,000 from FY23.

“We’ve got some mold mitigation,” Haigh said. “We haven’t done any carpet repairs yet, because we don’t know what’s going to happen inside the building. We do have some electrical repairs and our staircase in the back — at some point, we’re going to have to put some yellow tape on it.”

A number of other items remained on par with the current fiscal year or decreased, including overtime, uniform expenses and career incentives.

With respect to the capital budget, which was discussed last week at City Council, Haigh said he is asking councilors to not reconsider their vote on the request for $62,180 to acquire a new cruiser.

“I don’t feel like pitting departments against each other at this crucial time,” he said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Gordon also addressed comments made by members of the public, as well as city officials, that the budget is a moral document representing the values of a community. Many of these comments were made in light of the mayor’s proposed cuts to the School Department budget.

“The inference can be made that, by supporting public safety, it’s immoral,” he said. “That takes a lot of energy and a lot of morale from our officers to hear town leaders say our job is immoral.”

Fire budget

With respect to other public safety budgets, Fire Chief Robert Strahan emphasized staffing was the most critical need for his department.

“There’s no way it’s ever going to get funded at the levels we hope it would be, so then I pare it down to, what are the critical needs in the Fire Department, and build the budget based on what those critical needs are,” he said. “The critical need for us is manpower. It’s always been manpower.”

With 30 career firefighters and four call firefighters, the department responds to more than 3,000 calls per year, he said.

Strahan said his proposed budget included salaries for two new firefighters “to get us to full staffing,” both of which were ultimately cut in the mayor’s proposed budget. One additional firefighter, however, was moved out of the ambulance revenue account, bringing the shifts to three shifts of seven on duty and one shift with six officers on duty.

“We’re almost to our goal if we can hold the budget,” he said. “We really need to get our third shift to seven and an additional firefighter on top of that for relief.”

Wedegartner said without the two people requested by Strahan, the increase to the salary and wages line was 10.8%.

“The removal of the two people, while it was not something I wanted to do, nor [Finance] Director [Diane] Schindler, it does represent an increase in money needed for a very long time,” Wedegartner said. “Once we hire people, they’re on the books for a very long time.”

One of the more significant line item increases in the budget was for overtime, according to Strahan, which went from $175,000 in FY23 up to $225,000 in FY24.

“We maintain a five-person minimum,” he explained. “Once we get below five, we have to backfill to maintain that five-person minimum.”

With long-term injuries or use of family medical leave, some firefighters have made “pretty good salaries” over the last couple of years, largely due to “forced overtime.”

“They don’t want to be at work all the time; they’re forced to work because we have to have firefighters working,” he said, noting there are firefighters who work 96 hours some weeks. “The overtime we have in here reflects ... the staffing we’re anticipating going forward. Eventually, once we get to where we need to be fully, I hope that number will come down.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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