A high level of overtime pay for police officers was again a point of discussion at Thursday’s Committee on Finance hearing concerning the V.I. Police Department’s FY 2018 budget.
The VIPD is looking at a recommended nine percent cut in the overall budget for FY 2018, and senators appeared skeptical that the department will be able to keep its overtime pay within the $4 million that the budget proposes for that purpose.
By comparison, the VIPD has expended $10.4 million in overtime so far in FY 2017, a period which concludes at the end of September. That amounts to approximately 20 percent of the department’s entire budget for personnel costs and benefits for the fiscal year.
At past budget hearings, senators have expressed concern about the high amount of overtime pay being expended by the police department. In FY 2016, the VIPD spent approximately $14 million on overtime pay. In FY 2015, the number was almost $12 million.
As part of a recent series on the V.I.’s budget crisis, the Source reported that overtime pay for the V.I. Fire Service, the Bureau of Corrections, and the VIPD amounts to as much as the entire budget of the V.I. Legislature. (See Related Link: The V.I. Budget Crisis, Part 10: Chronic Overtime)
Police Commissioner Delroy Richards Sr. said Thursday that directives put in place in the past year have helped the situation, cutting monthly overtime costs from more than $1 million to between $600,000 and $800,000. He said that all overtime pay has to be justified and approved, and that the commissioner’s office receives weekly or bi-weekly reports from an overtime auditor.
Nevertheless, some senators remained critical Thursday of the longstanding issue of overtime costs eating up a substantial part of the VIPD’s budget.
“That $10 million figure is really excessive,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet, the chairman of the 32nd Legislature’s Committee on Finance. “It seems like all the vacant position monies are going to overtime.”
“To be blunt it’s common knowledge that there’s a number of officers who have made over $100,000 every year for the last donkey years,” Vialet continued. “At some point we have to be able to curb them.”
Vialet suggested that investing in GPS systems for every police vehicle would allow the commissioner’s office to locate officers at all times, including those who are on overtime. He said that might reveal that some officers collecting overtime aren’t always working when they say they are.
The VIPD has in the past disciplined officers and supervisors for abusing their overtime. But police officials say the main reason for the department’s high amount of overtime expenses is the need to keep “boots on the ground” despite a challenging staffing situation in a high-crime area.
Richards reiterated Thursday that the VIPD is functioning with minimal staff due to difficulties finding qualified candidates, a low starting salary for officers, and a slew of retirements; 174 sworn personnel will be eligible for retirement within the next five years, he said.
“New officers are leaving the department due to them receiving better job offers, off-island and locally, based on their qualifications coupled with the training that they receive,” Richards said.
The VIPD’s recommended FY 2018 budget includes 636 positions, funded by both the General Fund and federal grants. The budget contains 73 vacancies including a new class of 40 cadets, one of the few areas where the government will be funding new positions in FY 2018.
One reasons the VIPD needs the additional manpower is so it can meet compliance on the federal consent decree it has been operating under since 2009. Richards said Thursday that the department has complied with all but eight of the consent decree’s 51 paragraphs. Since the VIPD’s last budget hearing, for FY 2017, the department has met compliance on an additional 12 paragraphs.
“Consent decree progress has remained at a steady pace,” Richards said.
On Aug. 8, District Court Judge Curtis Gomez set a new completion date for the VIPD’s consent decree compliance: Nov. 23. Richards said he expects the department to meet that goal.
The VIPD’s largest professional contract is with Charles A. Gruber Consulting, its court-appointed consent decree monitor. That contract, for a total of $2.7 million, was signed in 2014 and ends in April 2018.
The department has approximately $1.5 million in pending professional contracts for FY 2018 and expects to spend an additional $800,000 in rent for offices, storage and parking spaces.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw asked Richards if there was a way the department might save on its rent, to which he replied that, although he is in support of consolidating offices on government property, it’s not likely to happen in the short-term.
“Trust me; it not only costs us, but we also seem to be ignored by some of our landlords,” Richards said.
As an example he noted that the police headquarters building on St. Croix, for which the department pays an annual rent of $322,000, is forced to operate on generator power about 40 percent of the time.
“We have a serious electrical problem in the building. The landlord seems to ignore it. He says it’s our problem,” Richards said.
The VIPD’s recommended FY 2018 budget amounts to $63.2 million: $57.1 million from the General Fund, $2.7 million in miscellaneous appropriations, $2.4 million in federal funding, and $926,000 from the Tourism and Casino Revolving Funds.
According to statistics provided by the department, crime is slightly down territory-wide in FY 2017 compared to the previous year.
Statistics for October 2016 through August 2017 show reported rapes falling 21 percent on St. Croix while remaining the same in St. Thomas-St. John. Reported burglaries fell 29 percent on St. Croix and 37 percent in St. Thomas-St. John. Reported felony assaults fell 27 percent in St. Thomas-St. John, but rose 12 percent on St. Croix. Reported robberies remained steady in St. Thomas-St. John, while rising five percent on St. Croix.
Richards said police data shows 36 reported homicides for the year compared to 40 at the same point in the previous year.
Also testifying at Thursday’s budget hearing were representatives from Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, an agency that provides free civil legal services to disadvantaged residents of the territory, and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
VITEMA’s total recommended budget for FY 2018 is approximately $14.7 million, making it one of the few government entities that expects an increase in funds in the coming year. That increase comes from a 40 percent boost in federal funds to $8.9 million, while the budget recommends a four percent cut in local funding to $5.7 million.
Legal Services of the V.I. requested that senators consider its initial budget request of $1.2 million from the General Fund, which the governor’s recommended budget slashes to $975,600. According to Richard Austin, the executive director of LSVI, the governor’s cut will not allow the agency to provide the level of services it is currently providing.
Present at Thursday’s information-gathering hearing were Sens. Vialet, Sarauw, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Brian Smith, Dwayne DeGraff, Tregenza Roach, and Novelle Francis Jr.