BRATTLEBORO >> Since the town is not always actively recruiting, officials want to ensure enough police officers are on the roster at all times.
"We're not asking for additional funding through the annual budget for police officer positions. What we're asking for is the authority to utilize the funding level that has been traditionally provided and likely to be provided for the full 27 officers," said Town Manager Peter Elwell, who was given the go-ahead Tuesday night to "occasionally and strategically overfill the complement" of officers on Brattleboro's department. "It means that for a short period of time, in ways that we can reasonably foresee, we might be carrying 28 or 29 or 30. I really can't foresee a situation where we would have more than that unless we had a larger number of people retiring in a given year and we know that turnover will occur."
Overfilling the roster will allow the town to have as many officers on the streets as possible and the department won't be continuously running with less than the 27 officers allocated through the budget, said Elwell, noting there may be times where turnover doesn't occur as quickly as anticipated. That would require managing the budget in a way to offset the short term overrun.
In the past, Elwell said vacancies saw savings for the town as expenditures were less than budgeted for.
"We're going to close that gap," he said. "We're going to manage these resources in a way where we'll be spending just about 100 percent of the budgeted funds for officers' salaries in a given year. Hopefully, a little less, maybe a little bit more. We'll manage the rest of the budget in such a way that if we're a little bit over on salaries, we'll be under someplace else and we won't over expend the whole budget."
Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald said there is an approximately 10-month process that includes interviews and training. Historically, the department loses approximately two-and-a-half officers a year between those retiring and those moving on. And due to the training process, there is perpetual shortage of three officers or 11 percent of the workforce.
The department has waited for vacancies before getting new hires ready for training.
"The academy meets twice a year and what we were finding is while people were in the academy, they count towards my rolls, they count towards my budget, but yet they weren't on shift out there policing the community," Fitzgerald said. "We want to try and eliminate that."
The large majority of overtime being paid out involves officers covering shortages on shift, he told the Selectboard.
Elwell confirmed money not spent on officer salaries goes back into the town's General Fund and that tens of thousands of dollars were returned in the past. Moving forward, smaller surpluses can be expected.
"We're going to manage this in a way where we're right on. You're never going to be right on so we may miss a little on the high side. We may miss a little on the low side," said Elwell. "But we're going to be trying to spend the full budget for salary."
Patrol officers can anticipate 50 percent of their days will be extended beyond their 10 hours, according to Fitzgerald. Sometimes, they find themselves getting up to 16 hours.
"Normally, that is used for times where there's incidents we have to respond to. But right now, it's just to cover shift," said Fitzgerald. "If we have a full complement, that overtime goes away. They do their 10 hours."
With a full roster, Fitzgerald said he will be able to dedicate officers to assignments rather than fitting those tasks in. Board members hope the change will also increase public safety and promote better health and safety for the officers.
Losing officers due to competitive salary levels was another concern the board will look at. While many officers come to Brattleboro for a career, Elwell said the town has seen a pattern of "too many young officers coming out of the academy, working with us for a period of time ... then finding other opportunities once they've got that training with us."
"We do have a contractual provision that requires that if an officer leaves within three years, they have to repay the town," he said. "That's good from a finance point of view. That's not good from a departmental operations and community point of view. We want to take steps to retain these officers and build the department."
If an officer leaves within the first year, Elwell said they have to make a full repayment of a calculated cost involved with taking them on. They are required to pay two-thirds of that cost if they leave in their second year and one-third if they leave in their third year.