Groton Town police looking at cutbacks after council vote

Groton - Acting Town Police Chief Steven Smith said Friday the department would have to make some "hard decisions" if the Town Council's $237,000 cut to the department remains, but he stopped short of saying it would result in layoffs.

"We are a long way from being done with our budget process," Smith said. "... I'm still optimistic and hopeful that we can still move forward on this." The cut does not become final until approved by the Representative Town Meeting.

Councilors voted 4-3 last week, with two members absent, to cut the department salary account by $237,462 or 4.8 percent. Councilor Bruce Flax proposed the figure, saying it represents this year's total, plus a 2.5 percent pay raise. Councilor Genevieve Cerf proposed a similar cut, saying the department had vacant positions and the town was just as safe.

"I really think we owe it to the citizens of Groton to try to be more like an average community and not overstaff our police force," she said.

The council continues deliberations this morning on the proposed $122.84 million town budget for the coming fiscal year.

The police cuts come after a study of Groton's three police departments urged the town and city to consolidate dispatch and jail services and collaborate on criminal and narcotics investigations. Some councilors have expressed frustration over the lack of progress in making this happen.

The town police boat was also in an accident on Aug. 31 on the Thames River. Damage was initially estimated at $18,000 in a report but earlier this week was estimated at $21,000.

In February, former Town Police Chief Michael Crowley retired, after having been out of work twice for personal reasons in earlier months. Town Manager Mark Oefinger placed Crowley on administrative leave on Jan. 24 for undisclosed reasons.

Smith, who is acting chief until the chief's job is filled, said the Town Council's cuts hurt because Oefinger already removed $100,000 from salaries, $24,000 from overtime and $16,000 from operations before submitting his proposal to the council.

But the department ended earlier budget years with extra money, Cerf said. She asked for a spreadsheet showing the number of officers the department has had over the last two years.

The town police department has authorization for 67 sworn officers, and 66 positions are filled, Smith said. Four officers are in field training and two just started at the police academy. The department also has four clerical staff and an animal control officer.

Some exchanges about the budget turned tense.

At one point, Cerf asked how much it cost to run the police boat and how much training officers had.

Capt. Steven Sinagra began, "I can speak for the region ... I've gone over this before..." then he stopped.

"You had said you went over it before?" Councilor Flax asked. "I'm gathering you're saying, 'You told us once already, and now you need to tell us again?'"

"No, not at all," Sinagra said.

"OK, I just took it the wrong way then," Flax said.

Councilor Heather Bond Somers said she wants a future meeting to discuss councilors' "concerns" about the department. The council should consider giving the police boat back, she said.

"I would rather get rid of the boat. That's how aggravated I am about this boat situation," she said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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