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New London City Councilor Michael Passero's proposed ordinance that would set a minimum staffing level of 80 sworn officers for the police department is a welcomed development that will engage a discussion about rebuilding police ranks.
It is also a positive development that Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio supports the intent of the ordinance and agrees that about 80 officers appears to be an appropriate minimal staffing level. Mayor Finizio agrees, as well, that it is within the purview of the council to establish staffing standards for the department.
Yet we urge the council, as it works with the administration on this matter, to keep a couple of things in mind.
It should not set a staffing requirement without the money to pay for it. Otherwise, it amounts to an unfunded mandate imposed on the mayor.
Secondly, it should carefully consider the consequences of dictating a mandatory number of officers. That would straitjacket the administration. Even in the face of a loss of state revenue or unforeseen expenses, the city would have to find a way to pay for 80 sworn officers, potentially gutting other city services to pay for the positions or returning the city to deficit spending.
Mr. Passero tells us that he is not locked in to a particular number or approach, but that his primary motivation is to generate a debate on the staffing issue. He is getting that result, with Council President Wade Hyslop referring the proposal to both the council's Public Safety and Administration committees.
Is it a conflict that a city employee and union member - Mr. Passero is a New London firefighter - offers an ordinance that will create more union jobs? Arguably, yes, but voters knew Mr. Passero worked for the city when they re-elected him as the top vote-getter in November. In our estimation, his motivation is public safety.
In 2007, the number of sworn officers stood at 90. A study commissioned by then City Manager Martin Berliner recommended the department maintain between 81 and 118 patrol officers. In recent years the ranks have dwindled, with the exodus accelerating over the last year, driven by a combination of job security concerns - due to the city's fiscal problems - and morale issues, manifested in a bitter relationship between the police administration and union leadership.
Deputy Chief Peter Reichard reports NLPD now has 66 sworn officers.
Despite diminished ranks, the department is by outward appearances doing a fine job policing the city, recently making quick arrests in several prominent crimes. Mayor Finizio points to statistics showing crime is down.
Yet margins are thin. Injuries or illness could make them thinner still, raising questions about the ability of police to adequately patrol the city or respond in large numbers when needed.
The prior council set aside $500,000 to hire several officers in the second half of the current fiscal year, which began Jan. 1. The mayor says he is eager to start hiring again, but is awaiting a budget outlook for the rest of the fiscal year before he starts spending. The sooner he begins the hiring process, the better.
As for the Passero proposal, the best council approach may be setting a staffing goal, rather than a mandated minimum. The council could then, as part of the normal budgetary process, work to find the funding to meet that goal for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Conversely, the council could mandate a staffing number, but with a provision allowing adjustment at the request of the mayor due to fiscal challenges.
The city has experience with mandated staffing. The New London Fire Department has minimum staffing numbers for every shift. That has proved a budget buster, as the NLFD has routinely exceeded its overtime budget to meet the requirement.
Set a police staffing level, work through the normal budgetary process to fund it, but provide the mayor the ability to adjust to fiscal realities.