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Auburn Police Department seeking solutions in face of officer shortage

AUBURN — As the Auburn Police Department saw four more officers retire in January, adding to what was already a staff shortage, Chief Shawn Butler said the department is working hard to find a creative solution. 

Three patrol officers, Brandy Quigley, Andrew Hitt and Scott Spin; and Detective Bryant Bergenstock retired from APD between Jan. 3 and Jan. 25 after each serving 20 years or more with the department. Butler said municipal police officers in New York can retire with half-pay pensions after 20 years. 

"They all had different (job) opportunities. It leaves us in a predicament, but I wish them the best, I understand when your time comes, your time comes," Butler said Wednesday. 

Butler said the department currently has 56 of its 67 budgeted positions filled, but there are currently 54 active officers as one is on military leave in Africa and a new recruit who was severely injured in defensive tactics training at the police academy is still recovering.

One more patrol officer has indicated he will retire in March, Butler added, and a captain may also be leaving in April or May. "We're used to a couple retirements a year, not hard to handle — but when you have a sixth, or more, of your complete force gone it really causes logistical issues," he said.

The department is able to handle calls for service, Butler said, but it is struggling to provide the level of service the community has come to expect and isn't able to "proactively police" as much as desired. This includes handling traffic complaints and conducting community policing events, for example. Luckily, he added, the winter tends to be a bit slower.

"Our people are holding the line, they're doing great," Butler said, adding that he doesn't have concerns for the public's safety. "They've definitely risen to the occasion.

"We have a minimum manpower that I set, where every shift has to go out with at least five patrol officers, plus at least one supervisor. And we're going out, often times, with that minimum," Butler said. "We're jumping call to call to call. It wears on the officers. I'm trying to really keep a heartbeat, a pulse, on how they're handling it."

When fully staffed, the department's shifts go out with a sixth, seventh or eighth car that can serve as back-up to more serious calls for service, do traffic enforcement and engage with business owners and the community. Even if the department had all 67 positions filled, Butler said that's more of a comfort, not optimal, level. "It's that balance between that budget and the funding that's available."

Butler said the department is over budget for overtime due to the shortages. Since there is a saving of funding from positions not being filled, he added, "all in all, it's probably a savings — but at what cost?"

Officers also haven't been able to take off all the time they want, but he said they've been understanding.

One of the department's hindrances to filling the vacant positions are recruitment challenges.

The department has two viable candidates right now, Butler said, but they have to wait to get training at a police academy. He's hoping for an academy class this spring, but after six months of police academy and about another 14-week-long field training program, it takes about one year from hire date to have someone answering service calls on their own.

APD's hiring process begins with candidates passing the police officer civil service exam. About 130 candidates passed the exam, last given in September, Butler said, but the department has near exhausted the list of candidates available. People have either been hired, haven't responded, or have been disqualified by failing the fitness or background checks, for example. Butler said when he and Deputy Chief Roger Anthony took over in 2016, they raised the background check standards.

"We want the best candidate. We've implemented polygraphs and psychological backgrounds. We've seen a decrease in viable candidates, but we want the best of the best out here serving our public," Butler said.

Another major hurdle for APD is that other area agencies are paying more, Butler said, and the lack of competitive salaries is hurting the department in terms of recruitment and retention.

A recruitment officer's salary on day one is $39,263, Butler said, and while the department used to have a five- or six-year pay scale, now it's 10 years. As a result, it takes officers longer to make more money. A top officer's base pay is $71,484, he said.

Another challenge is if APD comes to a place where there are no candidates available to hire from the civil service list, it may look into hiring lateral officers — already trained officers from other agencies. APD's current contract, however, caps a lateral officer's starting salary at about $51,000 regardless of their prior experience. This would be a significant pay cut for an officer with, say, 10 years of experience in Syracuse, Butler said.

"Our game needs to change — how we attract people, how we retain those we have," Butler said. 

The chief said he's constantly working with his staff to be creative, to find ways to hire given the contract restrictions and to "sustain the people we do have."

Butler said APD has the ear of city council and management, and some options and solutions for recruitment and retention are going to be explored at a Feb. 7 Auburn City Council meeting.

"There's got to be a breaking point, and we're on the cusp of that. With our current staffing, something's got to give — and I don't want that to be the quality of the service we provide," Butler said. "We're looking at everything. All hands are on deck with trying to find a solution. Our officer's union, city management, city council and police administration. We're all working together, which is a great feeling, we all have a common goal to find a solution — I think we're close. I don't think there's one thing that's going to fix it — there's multiple angles and multiple things we have to do."

Cayuga County emergency head resigns after barely more than a month in office

The resignations announced Friday night that have left the Cayuga County Emergency Management Office with just one full-time employee included the department's new director appointed in December.

Several county officials confirmed Wednesday that Director W. Douglas Whittaker, appointed Dec. 13 last year to serve on a part-time basis, and temporary Deputy Director Maureen Conley had left their positions.

An initial announcement from the county issued Friday said the "unexpected resignations" left the office with one full-time employee and 15 part-time employees, but did not specify who had resigned.

All officials interviewed Wednesday declined to comment on any reasoning behind the resignations, citing confidentiality reasons with personnel matters.

Whittaker was originally brought in to serve in a similar role as Bill Dashnaw, the former St. Lawrence County highway superintendent, who worked as a special consultant while Cayuga County reorganized its highway department into a combined Department of Public Works.

The resignations leave the development of such a plan unclear.

Cayuga County Legislature Chair Tucker Whitman, R-Sterling, said legislators would have to re-examine the department's direction and what they want to do with it.

"There's been the usual chatter and ideas tossed around and I don't think we really have a direction [for the department] yet," Whitman said. "We need to get some ideas together and see what our options are at this point."

As far as bringing the department back to full staffing, which would mean four full-time employees, Whitman said he was of the opinion it wouldn't make sense to do so without knowing what direction is planned.

Legislator Chris Petrus, R-Brutus, who chairs the Judicial and Public Safety Committee which oversees the office, said he had only recently been told of the plan to possibly restructure the department, and preferred replenishing it while taking time to decide its future.

"I'd rather see us staff it appropriately and take a longer, more deliberate approach if we're going to try something like that," Petrus said.

County Administrator J. Justin Woods said the plan would still be going forward, and that Whittaker started the county "down the right path" in areas to focus on, namely working with the Fire Advisory Board and local fire departments to better understand their needs.

"We're looking forward to continuing that work with stakeholders to develop a dynamic Emergency Management office that supports their operations as well as their planning and grant needs," Woods said.

Deputy Director Niel Rivenburgh, who previously led the office since 2017 after former longtime director Brian Dahl became ill, said Wednesday that office staff would "continue to do their missions" in support of operations.

In the meantime, county Planning Director Steve Lynch has been selected to serve as interim Acting Director of Emergency Services. According to Woods, Lynch was picked because of his experience with community engagement, which will be helpful in working with stakeholders.

Whittaker and Conley could not be reached for comment.

Special Persons Day

Auburn school district's 2019-20 budget becoming clearer

Elements of the Auburn Enlarged City School District's proposed 2019-2020 budget are becoming clearer.

Preliminary assumptions for the district's budget were discussed with the board of education at a workshop at the Auburn High School library Tuesday night.

The school district is currently set to get a 1.2-percent bump in foundation aid, which is the base aid districts receive. The district is recommending to the board that it set the tax levy at 2.21-percent, a $691,776 increase, equal to the district's tax cap set by the state. If the board sticks with a 2.21-percent levy for the budget vote in May, the district would have a preliminary $2.6 million deficit. Some board members, such as Ian Phillips, said they want to see different scenarios with possible cuts presented before deciding on a levy.

Those scenarios are set to be discussed at a 5 p.m. budget workshop Feb. 26, before the 7 p.m. board meeting. District Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said the board may approve a tax levy at that board meeting for the first March meeting.

Pirozzolo said the district would look at cutting back on supplies and equipment before looking at personnel. One of the biggest anticipated cost drivers for the district is Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES costs, which are set to go up by 9 percent, or $1.1 million.

The district is looking to set a cap on the number of students in some BOCES programs, Pirrozzolo said. He added they have already planned to have three high school BOCES-run special education classes to be run by the district next school year, joining a former BOCES class that was brought in-house last year, bringing the number to four. Pirozzolo said the district hopes to reduce BOCES costs in addition to other costs.

"We look like to look at everything before we look at staff," he said.

Pirozzolo noted some of the other anticipated biggest cost drivers are health insurance and inflationary increases.

He noted the 1.98-percent tax levy increase set to be incurred by the $43.7-million capital project district voters approved earlier this month wouldn't affect the 2019-20 levy, as that 1.98-percent increase doesn't go into effect until the district starts making debt payments on the project, which isn't until the 2020-21 budget year.

Pirozzolo said there are elements that can impact the final budget, such as the final state aid numbers, due by April. He said the district sometimes gets another $200,000-$300,000 in foundation aid between the first state numbers in January until the final ones. 

Pirozzolo, who was long argued Auburn does not receive the state aid it is due, said the district feels a fiscal responsibility, adding he appreciated the community approving the capital project.

"I'm very thankful for them fully supporting the project, and the burden can not continue to be on taxpayers, and it has to go back to the state," he said.

In other news: 

The district will have to pay $250,000 to $500,000 out of its fund balance for asbestos abatement in Auburn Junior High School's gymnasium.

Pirozzolo said an adhesive above the gym's dropped ceiling has asbestos encapsulated in it. Even though there is no asbestos in the air, the abatement still has to be done by August. It is expected to cost between $250,000 to $500,000.

Auburn hopes to have the problem classified as an emergency project by the state Education Department, so the district would still pay out of its fund balance but would get state aid back immediately. While the district plans to submit the proposal for the emergency project to the state in two weeks, Pirozzolo is not sure if it will be approved.

Rep. John Katko to hold town hall meetings on I-81 project in Auburn, DeWitt

U.S. Rep. John Katko will kick off a series of town hall meetings on the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse with a pair of forums next week in Auburn and the town of DeWitt. 

Katko, R-Camillus, will hold a town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4 in the student lounge at Cayuga Community College, 197 Franklin St., Auburn. The forum's moderator will be Steve Lynch, director of planning and economic development for Cayuga County. 

Another forum is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9 at DeWitt Town Hall, 5400 Butternut Dr., East Syracuse. The event will be held in the court room. The moderator will be DeWitt Councilor Kerry Mannion. 

"Our community has a once-in-a-generation decision before us as we look to the future of Interstate 81," Katko said in a statement. "This decision impacts not only the city of Syracuse, but the towns and villages that surround it and rely on I-81." 

Other Interstate 81-focused town hall meetings are planned for February, according to Katko's office. They are finalizing details for forums in Salina and Syracuse. 

Representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and the state Department of Transportation have been invited to attend the town hall meetings. 

There are ongoing discussions about how to best replace the I-81 viaduct that stretches through Syracuse. The viaduct reached the end of its useful life in 2017. A few proposals are under consideration, including replacing the viaduct with a street-level community grid, rebuilding the elevated portion of the highway or constructing a tunnel. 

Several Syracuse officials support the street-level grid. But there is opposition to that proposal outside of the city because of fears it may increase truck traffic on rural roads. 

Katko, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has expressed concern about the potential impacts of the grid. However, he hasn't taken a position on any of the proposals. He has said the community should decide which is the best option. 

"I have always stated I will stand firmly behind the decision of our community and support it on the federal level," Katko said. "That's why I'm looking forward to engaging with folks throughout central New York in a series of open town hall meetings focused on this important issue." 

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the new timeline for the I-81 project. A draft environmental impact statement will be available early this year. The state Department of Transportation said the draft will include a "preferred alternative" for the I-81 project. 

The draft environmental impact statement will be reviewed by the Federal highway Administration and other relevant agencies. The state plans to distribute the report for public comment and hold a public hearing this summer. 

Once the public comment period is completed, the state will choose the alternative and submit the final environmental impact statement for federal approval in 2020.