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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nashua Board of Aldermen OKs transfer of $178,000 from ‘welfare costs’ into police department overtime account

NASHUA – The Board of Aldermen may not have agreed on how they were kept informed about the Police Department’s budget shortfall, which left resource officers and special unit patrols depleted in the city, but they all agreed that it needed to be fixed.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer $178,000 out of the city’s “welfare costs” account and into the Police Department’s overtime payroll account to make up the shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year.

The Nashua Police Department had no other choice but to pull school resource officers and to limit certain special patrol units last month, when faced with a projected budget deficit of approximately $200,000, Police Chief John Seusing told aldermen Tuesday.

The Police Department, represented by Seusing and Commissioners Tom Pappas, Robert Valade and Tom Maffee, as well as Business Manager Karen Smith, met with aldermen to discuss decisions that were made to meet a shortfall projected in the department’s overtime account.

Those choices put half of the department’s high school resource officers on normal patrol duty and moved officers from the Traffic Enforcement and Problem Oriented Policing units to regular patrols.

A resolution sponsored by Alderman-at-Large Lori Wilshire, along with six other aldermen, would have transferred up to $250,000 out of the city’s “welfare costs” account and into the Police Department’s overtime payroll account to make up the shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year.

Smith said the department would feel comfortable with returning the positions to their assignments if provided $100,000 in added funding, leading the board to amend the resolution before voting for its final passage.

Last month, Seusing told The Telegraph the department was on pace to overspend its budget by as much as $200,000, forcing it to put half of the department’s high school resource officers on normal patrol duty and move officers from the Traffic Enforcement and Problem Oriented Policing units to regular patrols.

“After many, many days of meeting and deciding where we were going to find that supplement to our patrol coverage, we found there were just a few places we could pull officers from,” Seusing said.

The POP and Traffic Units are a part of the Police Department’s patrol division but don’t normally conduct traditional patrols, responding to calls for service around the city.

The POP Unit is a small group of four officers and a sergeant supervisor that focuses on gang and drug activity, as well as investigations that are difficult for traditional patrol officers to follow up on but don’t rise to the level of detectives’ involvement.

The Traffic Enforcement Unit focuses solely on traffic enforcement.

“I will tell you this, that pulling the two high school resource officers out of the high school, utilizing our POP unit and our traffic unit, were decisions that were very, very difficult for myself, my staff and the police commission to do,” Seusing said. “But based on our projection, and the fact that our budget is so tight, and certainly because we cannot predict what lies ahead of us, we could not gamble and we had to make some decisions quickly so we could balance that budget.”

The budget issue first came to light during the board’s March 28 meeting.

Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess questioned a letter the Police Department sent to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and board President Brian McCarthy on Feb. 3 that projected an overtime shortfall of $300,000 to $350,000 in the police budget this fiscal year.

A number of residents attending Tuesday’s meeting urged aldermen to meet the Police Department’s needs to get SROs back in schools.

“Are schools safe? Yes, they are safe. But they are safer with two SROs,” resident Kim Muise said. “How do I know that? My very own children tell me they feel safer, because the fact is that their very presence stops incidents from happening.”

Muise pointed to data that she said suggests disciplinary incidents increase in the last three months of school.

“This is not the time to remove the SROs,” she added.

According to financial reports on the city’s website, the Police Department’s budget topped $1 million in February after close to $500,000 was transferred into it.

After Seusing moved the SROs out of the schools to cover patrol shifts, The Telegraph reviewed the department’s overtime spending since July, the start of the fiscal year.

The review showed that $10,000 was transferred into the overtime account in December, $150,000 was transferred in January and another $290,000 was transferred in February.

Police had spent 85 percent of their original overtime budget of $701,447 by the end of November, according to the reports.

Some aldermen have questioned why they never heard about the budget strains until almost two months after the Police Department sent their letter to the city.

Lozeau and McCarthy have said they never relayed the letter to aldermen because the chief and commissioners had not requested any action from the board.

Upon receiving the communication, Lozeau said she met with the chief, the commissioners and the city’s chief financial officer to work out the solution to the problem, which left each high school short one resource officer, and some special unit patrols depleted.

Lozeau has said the Police Department was not looking for additional funding to address the problem and maintained that the city and schools remain safe despite the temporary shifts.

“When I look at the budget process and the choices that we made in bringing in our budget, it’s just that. Choices,” Lozeau said. “Things we talked about tonight. Spend money buying land, spend money on staff, look at overtime costs. We all make choices on the things we think keep the city in good stead.”

Superintendent Mark Conrad also issued a letter to the Nashua School District reassuring parents that the high schools are still safe with one resource officer on duty.

Eventual news of the budget strains came as no surprise for some city officials.

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

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

At the time, Wilshire and Alderman-at-Large David Deane said they supported transferring surplus funds from the welfare department budget into the police overtime account to prevent any impact on services as a result of the cuts, which is why Wilshire brought her latest resolution to the table.

Joseph G. Cote contributed to this report. Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com.

Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).