For one Utica police officer, his 2013 salary was $73,925.

But records from the city Comptroller’s Office show that his total pay last year was $109,533, a 33 percent bump.

That isn’t an anomaly.

Several other officers added 25 to 30 percent to their base salary through overtime and other benefits. The same happened, to a lesser extent, in the fire and public works departments.

As the city stares down a possible 8.73 percent tax increase and struggles to right its financial ship, one of the largest pressures on the budget is public safety costs.

The fire and police departments’ proposed budgets are $25.74 million, or 39 percent of the city’s $66.2 million budget.

Salaries are the biggest cost.

The city spent more than $12 million in 2013 on police pay and nearly $8.6 million for the fire department.

Across the largest three departments, employees collect additional pay through overtime, unused holiday and sick pay, and clothing allowances.

For example, public works employees’ total pay reflects the different jobs workers do. If an employee does a job outside his title, his pay reflects that. Employees also are offered a yearly $250 bonus if they volunteer consistently to come in and snowplow.

Typically, public works employees’ pay is lower than police or fire.

Union and city officials point to unfilled positions, increased need for services and budget pressures as key contributors to spikes in pay for some employees.

But given the city’s financial situation, the payroll levels are getting unsustainable, said Councilman David Testa, D-2.

“We’re at that point now,” he said. “I have to look out for the low-income people in my district. It’s just a tough situation we’re in. It’s getting out of hand.”

Testa, along with Councilman-at-large Jack LoMedico, recently proposed $900,000 worth of cuts to the fire and police departments from the mayor’s proposed budget.

Cities and taxpayers have to decide what’s the best way to utilize tax dollars, said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center.

“I think generally speaking … in a perfect world, overtime is the result of extraordinary circumstances or poor management,” he said. “It’s about right-sizing government.”

The police department has the most allowances. Officers collect a clothing allowance, overtime, shift differential, unused holiday and sick pay, and line-up pay.

Those perks aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Last year, the city and the department approved a new contract that includes a retroactive raise for 2013, two raises in 2014 and another in 2015.

The other problem is that if the city wanted to do away with certain benefits or change the pay structure, it would have to be negotiated.

The union did make some concessions in the new contract, Mayor Robert Palmieri said.

“You’re not going to get everything at once,” Palmieri said. “I think you could say it was fair because no one was happy. When no one’s happy, the public should be happy. The union didn’t feel that it got enough and I didn’t feel that we got enough.”

The city found that out the hard way when it attempted to arbitrarily strike line-up pay from the police union’s pay last year.

Officers received a higher rate, sometimes as much as 2½ times their normal rate, for showing up 15 minutes early for their shift. That pay is automatically included in officers’ pay in the new contract.

The fire department is in negotiations with the city for a new contract and could see similar raises.

Union officials argue those benefits are earned and the departments have worked with the city during the recent financial crisis.

In addition to its normal duties, the police department also is required to provide a presence at numerous community events, said Chief Mark Williams during Thursday’s budget amendment meeting.

Fire officials point out that their department agreed to two years with no raises under their last contract.

“We’ve been to arbitration, what, twice in 22 years,” said Robert Wenner, president of the fire department union told the Common Council Finance Committee Thursday night. “We’ve been more than willing to work with the city.”

On Friday, Budget Director Peter Fiorillo said both departments have done an excellent job managing their budgets, given their situations.

“Now, obviously, I don’t like it when salaries go over the budget … however, the departments are managing their budgets such that the fire department is not going to go over budget even though their overtime lines are substantially over,” he said. “They’re managing it, they know. Now the police department, because of the settlement of the (union) contract, that was the circumstance that threw us over.”

Both departments are doing more work with fewer employees, Palmieri said.

“I’m not going to say anyone is overpaid,” he said. “The bottom line is we’re going to the full complement out there to provide the services to stimulate economic development and that are needed to respond to call for services.”

© 2014, Utica Observer-Dispatch

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