Southampton Town Board members unanimously agreed last week, after months of heated debate and protests, to allow five veteran officers of the Southampton Town Police Department to remain on the job.
The decision on Thursday, November 20, to keep the officers on staff comes several months after Town Supervisor Linda Kabot first tried to push through a plan, designed by Police Chief James Overton, to trim the operating budget of the police department, which is now running at a $4.5 million deficit. That plan, first introduced in August, would have forced into retirement six veteran officers based on the number of days they missed over a five-year period. One of the officers, Ed Crohan, voluntarily retired earlier this month.
Chief Overton said he crafted the plan after being asked by former Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney to come up with a rollover formula to best deal with the aging police force and reduce the department’s operating costs.
Since August, pressure from representatives of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, combined with opposition from three Town Board members, have added to the debate.
From the beginning, Town Board members Anna Throne-Holst, Chris Nuzzi and Dan Russo were against allowing the plan to go through. The supervisor, on the other hand, believed that it was within the board’s discretion to decide whether or not to allow officers to remain on the job after putting in 20 years. Ms. Kabot also argued that room had to be made for younger police officers, who start out making about half of what the veterans earn, which is upward of $100,000.
Nearly four months later, and after the resolution was tabled five times, the Town Board decided last Thursday to keep officers Kevin Gwinn, Maureen Drew, Steven Frankenbach, Lyle Smith and Kenneth Mujsce on the payroll and not force them to retire.
Additionally on Thursday, the board also increased the police department’s 2009 operating budget by $549,425 to fund the five officers. In total, 105 officers are now budgeted for next year.
Two of the five targeted officers, Officers Smith and Mujsce, suffered serious injuries in the line of duty. They are being kept on the town’s payroll for three additional months in 2009 until a determination is made regarding their New York State disability. The other three officers, also injured on the job, have already returned to work.
At issue for PBA President Patrick Aube has been that the police chief’s plan only calculated how many days of work an officer missed, and did not take into consideration why the individual was absent or how efficient that officer was while working. According to Mr. Aube, it was unfair to penalize officers who had to miss work because of injuries suffered while on duty.
Chief Overton explained that taking a close look at the number of days missed over a five-year period was the most objective and fair way to handle the request of the former supervisor. Ms. Kabot agreed with this position and argued that considering a five-year period allowed for injuries and illnesses.
“This is a good compromise,” Mr. Aube said after last week’s meeting, adding that if the deal had not been reached, then a lengthy and costly lawsuit would have likely ensued.
Mr. Aube also thanked Ms. Throne-Holst, Mr. Russo and Mr. Nuzzi for their steadfast support, and singled out Mr. Russo, who lost his re-election bid earlier this month and will be leaving office on December 31, for being a “man of your word.”
Mr. Aube explained that keeping the five officers on the police force would be a boost to morale, which, he said, had been suffering. “An officer shouldn’t have to worry that getting hurt while on duty could result in being terminated from service,” Mr. Aube said.
Two colliding takes on the state retirement law were at the center of the controversy. PBA attorneys were arguing that, under the state’s retirement plan, police officers are entitled to choose when they want to leave the force. Meanwhile, attorneys representing the town pointed to a 1971 interpretation of the law by then-State Assemblyman Perry Duryea stating that officers shall be separated from the department unless their service is extended by the Town Board.
But, in the end, the emotional wave created by forcing the officers into retirement was too much to overcome, as evidenced by the issue being put off since first introduced on August 26.
Officer Gwinn, who was recently injured in a accident while responding to an emergency call, is the most decorated cop in the department’s history, and Officer Smith was honored by Ms. Kabot as “Patrolman of the Year” for 2008. Their presence at public hearings added to the intensity of the debate and helped to solidify the support of a majority of the Town Board, ensuring the failure of the supervisor’s initiative to force the officers into retirement.
After Thursday’s settlement, Officer Smith said he was glad to see an end to the controversy. “It makes my physical injuries a little less painful now that this over,” he said.