ATWATER -- For several years, Atwater's Police Department has overspent its overtime budget, prompting one city councilman to ask, "Does the city need more officers?"
Surprisingly, the answer from Chief Richard Hawthorne is no. It's a qualified no, however. Hawthorne said he'd love to see more officers, but he counters that more uniforms on the street would not fix the department's overtime problems. It probably would only make it worse.
For the past four years the department has budgeted between $160,000 and $225,000 for overtime, but ran over each year by substantial amounts.
In the fiscal year 2008-09, the department nearly doubled its overtime. The department budgeted $190,000 that year, but went over by $168,190.
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In fiscal year 2009-10 which ends in June, the department again budgeted $190,000 for overtime, but as of February was already just below that mark. With four months left in the year, Hawthorne approached the City Council to request a mid-year budget amendment to allocate an additional $110,000 for overtime.
Atwater's new overtime allowance of $300,000 equals an additional 7.6 percent on its $3.6 million budget dedicated for the salaries of field personnel -- the officers on the street. And Hawthorne suggested the department may run over its budget by a closely similar amount as it did in 2008-09. If it does, the department would be over even that amended $300,000 mark.
Hawthorne says it's been somewhat common for his department to run over its overtime budget, but not to the tune of nearly doubling it. He said the overages that occurred in 2008-09 and again this year are unusual. In previous years, the department has managed its overages by siphoning money set aside for training and equipment that wasn't spent during the year. This is the first year he's had to request a large mid-year budget amendment to cover the expenses.
Atwater's problems stem from an unusual collision of events. Five of the department's 34 officers have been on sick leave for at least six months, and one has been out for a year. Without going into detail, Hawthorne described a couple as back injuries and one as car accident while the officer was traveling to work. The rest of the force, including two reserve officers, has to fill in for those vacancies.
"I've been in law enforcement for 30 years and have never had this situation," he said of the number of officers he has out of service.
There has also been increased and unexpected court time. For example, a man who is believed to have committed a 2006 murder was just located and arrested in late 2009. That means the officers who worked that case must now spend long hours at court hearings, and other officers must fill their spots on the streets.
All of this prompted City Councilman Jeff Rivero to ask recently if Atwater shouldn't just hire more police officers.
Hawthorne responded that police work is maybe the one field in which adding more employees actually adds more overtime to a budget, rather than taking it away.
When new officers hit the streets, they generate more work. They make arrests, have to file reports and often end up in court testifying. When they stop a drunk driver 20 minutes before the end of their shift, they have to escort that person to jail and finish their paperwork regardless of the time, Hawthorne said.
Hawthorne has compensated for his ill officers by pulling three officers off their special duties -- one in traffic enforcement and two in street crimes -- to fill in on regular shifts. He predicted he'll see two officers return to work in April or May and hopes to see a few more come back in June so he can return those officers to special duties.
Looking at the department's spending pattern for the past four years, it begs the question, why not just budget more for overtime?
Hawthorne said he has made that suggestion, but has been asked to keep his budgets at a lower amount and come back to ask for more only if he needs it.
"They are trying to get me to live within those overtime amounts. I think they are beginning to see those amounts are not manageable," he said.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.