'Please Give Us More Officers'

Police officers, family members plead for relief from overtime

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Payson police and their supporters were up in arms and out in force Wednesday night to protest a recent council decision to reject Police Chief Gordon Gartner's request for more patrol officers.

Filling the council chambers at a budget work session, they listened for an hour to Chief Fiscal Officer Glenn Smith's detailed report of the proposed 1999-2000 $27.5 million budget.

The council rejected Gartner's request for five new officers and a police sergeant at its May 27 meeting because there was no funding for the proposal.

But after hearing from police officers and their families Wednesday night, Mayor Vern Stiffler said the council has $146,000 to work with to hire additional officers.

"The maximum we can get out of that is three officers," he said. "We're increasing our budget 12 percent. We've got to have some kind of view of the future. We've got a million dollars' worth of new revenue and we're spending it."

Stiffler said the council would discuss the matter of hiring more police officers as the first item of business at the regular meeting of the council June 10. Stiffler adjourned Wednesday's meeting abruptly after three hours, but there were still those who wanted to speak on the issue.

During the lengthy public hearing, police officers, their wives, children and supporters told the council that no amount of recreational activities or street repairs will make a difference in the town if public safety is jeopardized.

For the police, the issue wasn't about pay rates and money, but about time, in what many called a stressed-out, overworked police force.

Before hearing from the public, the council discussed raising the bed tax, which, at $1 per night is the lowest in the state. Council members said the added revenue of an increase to 3 percent could be used to support tourism.

But those who sought to increase personnel on the police force asked why the added revenue couldn't be used for more officers.

Smith told the council that unallocated revenue in the proposed budget, $82,648, could fund one and a half officers.

Adding $63,000 from the bed tax fund would allow the police department to hire three officers at $48,484 each, which includes the cost of benefits, or a total of $145,452.

Gartner said Thursday afternoon that although he requested five new officers and a police sergeant in the 1999-2000 budget, he will settle for three new officers that could be funded with the additional bed tax revenue. He said his main concern is that the officers have adequate backup when they go out on a high-risk call.

"It's been four years since we've hired any police officers," Gartner said.

Council members said little during the public hearing to indicate that they would back such a proposal. Only Council member Jack Monschein, a former law enforcement officer, said that he would go back and cut everything in the budget by 10 percent. "Then we'll give 'em 10 police officers," he said.

But Council member Ken Murphy said there are other ways to fight crime in a town where the crime rate has decreased and police response is "adequate."

"When I look at where the money goes, 7 percent of the money goes to recreation. There's a lot of ways to fight crime. I think there are other alternatives out there to fight crime," Murphy said.

During the public commentary, Cody O'Donnell, whose stepfather, Doug Johnson, is an officer, said, "Every night I think about him. I listen to the scanner. There's guys out there who could shoot my dad.

"And when he comes home, he's so tired, he goes to sleep and he wakes up and eats something."

Council members may be concerned about the future and spending all the money at their disposal, but the future looks bleak for officers who are putting in 15 to 20 hours of overtime each pay period, said Doug Meadows, a Payson resident.

"Is it cost efficient to pay overtime and burn these officers out? They're working long hours -- do we want officers out there who are dealing with fatigue?"

Sgt. Rod Mamero said, "It always comes back to money. The people are burned out -- they're tired and it's getting dangerous.

"I'm telling you right now, we're not doing the best job. I'm telling you right now, we've been screaming for officers -- it's not safe."

His views were supported by Lt. Don Engler. "Things can't continue the way they are," he said. "If you've been out on the street 12 hours, you've seen three or four domestics -- you've had your gun out -- there's going to be a mistake made.

"Do we allow crime to increase before we address this? My plea to you is, our organization is as stressed as it can be. We're seeing injuries and health problems. Please give us more officers."

Gartner told the council that when the positions he proposed were struck from the budget, he got the message that there was no help on the horizon. Gartner said he expressed his concern to his officers and told them he'd done everything he could do.

In an interview Thursday, Gartner said that some overtime is part of the job of being a police officer. "We wanted to set a goal of 30 hours per pay period (every two weeks) for overtime," he said. "Some pay periods we do OK, some pay periods, we stink."

At Wednesday's budget work session, Gartner told the council, "I understand it's not good economic sense to spend all your new revenues.

"But I think it's important that you understand that these officers are just people, no more, no less."

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