DANVERS — Police Chief Neil Ouellette has pulled four specialized officers off their beats and back into patrol cars to deal with a manpower shortage that's resulted in skyrocketing overtime costs.
A detective, the high school resource officer, the sergeant in charge of community services and the sergeant who is the court prosecutor have all been reassigned to cruisers to cut down on overtime costs caused by a larger-than-usual number of officers out on leave.
The department budgeted $628,000 for overtime this year, but Ouellette said they exceeded that figure at the end of February.
The Police Department's budget is scheduled to go before selectmen tonight during a hearing at 7 in Town Hall. Selectmen are also scheduled to vote on the town's $97.4 million budget, which will then be presented to the Finance Committee in the coming weeks.
The proposed $6.1 million police budget is up 7.5 percent over the present fiscal year. Ouellette said yesterday that the budget was still being tweaked.
For the past couple of years, the department has dealt with a number of officers who have been out for lengthy periods of time due to illness or injury. The department has an aging workforce — about 20 officers were first hired in the mid- to late 1980s — which translates into higher rates of illness and injury. In addition, two positions were eliminated in a round of budget cuts in 2009.
There are 46 officers in the department. Many have been picking up extra shifts, totaling hundreds of hours at time and a half. At least six officers earned more than $45,000 apiece in overtime in 2011.
Presently, two sergeants and three patrolmen are out due to illness or injury.
"Hopefully, one of our sergeants will be back," Ouellette said, adding that it would allow some officers to do their regularly assigned jobs instead of patrolling in a squad car.
To make ends meet, high school resource officer Stephen Baldassare was reassigned recently to the shift from 1 to 9 a.m. Since he patrols the area of the high school on Cabot Road, he stands by during the opening of school, Ouellette said.
"Steve is a good officer, and he understands the issue, and he didn't resist," Ouellette said.
Officer Ashley Sanborn spent just a few days as a detective before she had to be reassigned back to patrol, Ouellette said.
Sgt. David Joyce, the police prosecutor, and Sgt. Robert Bettencourt, the head of community services, are switching off weeks in the patrol car.
The department is also facing a couple of retirements.
"We are working to fill those gaps now," Ouellette said.
Town Manager Wayne Marquis said in a brief interview yesterday that reassignments are necessary to keep the police budget in the black until the end of the fiscal year. No such reassignments have been made in the Fire Department, but officials are watching the budget week to week, Marquis said. The Fire Department and the Code Administration budget will be discussed tonight.
Ouellette said June 24 will mark the first payroll of the new fiscal year, when the department's staffing can go back to normal.
To fill the two positions lost in 2009, the department has applied for a community policing grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.