Concerned with a perceived spike in drug-related crimes, city residents have posed a simple question to mayoral candidates during radio show call-ins and door-to-door campaigning: What can be done?
Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith is putting forward an idea that is anathema to the police officers’ union, while his Nov. 8 opponent, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, said he doesn’t want to micromanage.
“It’s always a vexing issue when you’ve got a public-sector union work force,” Mr. Graham said.
Indeed, in combating drug crimes and other offenses in the city — on Wednesday, for example, officials said they feared that the manufacture of methamphetamine might be coming back to the north country — the mayoral candidates are put in a tight spot. The mayor has no administrative control over the Police Department. The only power is one vote out of five in deciding policy and appropriations. Hiring extra police officers costs money, too. And the union is resistant to hiring retired officers part-time, an idea that came up a decade ago and is being raised once more.
“What if we could get these guys to come back in a part-time basis, working with the union?” Mr. Smith said. “They’re already trained. They have 20-plus years of experience.”
Though he’s not sure exactly how much money it could save, Mr. Smith said the city wouldn’t have to pay toward a part-timer’s retirement or health insurance. Mr. Smith said he has spoken with several retired police officers who would be open to the idea.
The union, though, is not.
“I just don’t see the benefit for union folks that are trying to do a full-time job and put the time in,” said Detective Jerry D. Golden, president of the Watertown Police Benevolent Association. “If you start supplementing that, I don’t see the benefit to the union.”
He added: “I believe they’re doing a good job and giving the citizens of Watertown a really good service. There are no major cases that are unsolved. Obviously, we’re very busy up here with the drug problem. But that’s an epidemic all over the country. ...Our overall concern is public safety.”
As it stands, the city can’t hire part-time police officers because of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, which is up for renewal at the end of June. Mr. Smith said he would be open to negotiating with the union on the matter. He said the part-time police officers would be paid a “fair wage” and no jobs would be cut. There are 64 sworn police officers in the city. The part-time police officers could be used for community policing and as school resource officers at the middle school, Mr. Smith suggested.
Mr. Graham, without saying he’s “in favor or opposed” to the idea, questioned whether the union would go for it.
“I’m all for tough negotiations and not being a pushover, but I also agree with the idea that you live up to the agreements and the letter of the law,” Mr. Graham said. “I’m not clear that that’s a possibility at the present time.”
Mr. Graham also said he hasn’t differed from Mr. Smith on the amount of money law enforcement gets in the budget (of the current $38 million budget, the Police Department budget is $7.4 million. Of the $7.4 million, about $6.5 million is dedicated to salaries and benefits for officers).
“You rely first on the recommendations of the police chief and the city manager as to what the staffing is,” Mr. Graham said. “Both of them realize that they can come to the council and make a request. Everything in life is a balancing act. You can say, ‘Hire this, build this or build that,’ but you have to realize it costs money.”