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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Board questions transparency over police budget woes, meeting with department slated April 10

NASHUA – Some aldermen want to know why they were kept out of the loop as the Police Department cut back on school resource officers and special unit patrols to make up for budget strains.

Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess contends a Feb. 3 letter sent by Nashua Police Chief John Seusing and the police commissioners to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, board President Brian McCarthy, and city CFO John Griffin, detailing projected budget woes should have been forwarded to aldermen so they could have considered providing more funding.

Seusing’s letter projected a deficit of $300,000 to $350,000 in the overtime budget, citing unforeseen high vacancies and time-consuming investigations. It predicted the unused payroll funds that were supplementing the overtime budget would be depleted in early March.

“I’m really amazed that the letter was withheld for two months,” Donchess said. “Principles of open government and the charter responsibility to keep the Board of Aldermen informed required that the request … be provided to the Board of Aldermen basically immediately.”

Aldermen are now scheduled to meet with the Police Department on April 10, their next meeting, McCarthy said Monday.

Also on Monday, Lozeau defended withholding the letter.

Upon receiving Seusing’s communication in February, Lozeau said she immediately met with the chief, the Police Commission and the CFO to work out a solution to the problem, but said the problem was an estimated account issue, and not a budget deficit report, so it did not require her to go to the board about it.

It was after the meeting that Seusing decided to pull two of the department’s four high school SROs and put them on normal patrol duty. The department also moved officers from the Traffic Enforcement and Problem Oriented Policing units to regular patrols as needed, which has been done “more than we’d like,” Seusing has said.

Lozeau said “these decisions are reasonable decisions that don’t put anybody in jeopardy, and sometimes budgets have to be managed.” She added, “If there needs to be funds allocated, I will be happy to inform the Board of Aldermen. This is not one of those instances.”

Donchess first brought the Police Department’s budget issue to light during an aldermen meeting last Tuesday, questioning why Lozeau and McCarthy did not relay the communication to the full board.

McCarthy said he took the letter as informational and didn’t see the need to forward the communication to the rest of the board since he knew Lozeau was talking with Seusing.

“I was copied on a letter to the mayor; I was not asked to forward it to the board,” McCarthy said. “I often get copied on things where people think someone else is going to take action on them. It could be a question of the way we do business. … Until they ask for something for the aldermen, it’s not up to us to necessarily go out and do anything about it.”

The Police Department took a 3 percent budget decrease for this fiscal year, even though it had proposed a budget increase.

Last June, Lozeau called for spending cuts of 3 percent in nearly every city division, as the city faced rising employee pension and health insurance costs, reduced state aid and shrinking municipal revenue.

Donchess said aldermen should have known about the problem sooner, citing Section 45 of the city charter, which states “(the mayor) shall keep the Board of Aldermen informed of the condition and needs of the city and shall make such reports and recommendations as he may deem advisable.”

Donchess also pointed to Seusing’s letter, which stated, “We look to you for guidance in obtaining the necessary funding from the City for the expected shortfall in overtime funding … and discussing the matter further.”

Lozeau told Donchess she didn’t bring the matter before aldermen because the police hadn’t asked for any action from them, such as appropriating more money.

“The police leadership team is not leading this discussion saying we need more money,” Lozeau said Monday. “The number wasn’t as big as they thought it was going to be.”

McCarthy said it is common for city departments to face budget shortfalls over a given year, and it is not always possible for the city to meet a request for more funding.

“I am concerned with the school resource officers being removed, but I understand we’ve done that before,” McCarthy said Monday. “It’s not that they’re taking POPs off the streets. Occasionally they’ll borrow people from it, like they would any other unit.”

Donchess said he is concerned that limiting the SROs and POP shifts is limiting the service and safety that the police provides the community.

Lozeau said the moves by the Police Department in no way jeopardize public safety.

“Our streets are safe. Our schools are safe,” Lozeau said.

The department’s shortfall was not a surprise for police officials or aldermen, who say they predicted it during last year’s budget deliberations.

“I voted for the overtime to be in the budget to begin with, so that’s where I’m coming from,” Ward 3 Alderman Diane Sheehan said Monday. “I would like to see what’s going on, where the overtime’s been used.”

When the cut was imposed, Sheehan said aldermen requested the Police Department approach them if additional funding was going to be needed.

She added that the Police Department chose to reach out to the mayor for help, and that the Budget Committee should have been watching more closely for transfers within the Police Department’s budget.

Seusing has said the department’s moves will hopefully keep it under budget through June, the end of this fiscal year, and then can be addressed for the next budget.

Lozeau has emphasized that having one resource officer at each high school was just part of a temporary solution to finish out this fiscal year.

The problem could be resolved before then if a supplemental appropriation is proposed at the next aldermen’s meeting.

If a board member does propose a supplemental appropriation, it would ultimately need Budget Committee review and 10 votes from the full board in favor to pass, McCarthy said.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).