Many V.I. Police Department and V.I. Fire Service employees are retiring, or will soon be eligible to retire, creating a risk that chronic short-staffing may get worse if too many retire, VIPD and Fire Service officials told the Senate during budget hearings Wednesday.
"The fact that many of our seasoned and experienced officers are retiring and many others are eligible to retire is a serious concern of ours," Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard told the Finance Committee. In the St. Thomas/St. John District, 54 sworn personnel are now eligible to retire and in 2015 eight more become eligible, he said. Similarly in the St. Croix District, 66 are eligible to retire now and nine more will be eligible next year, for a total of 137 officers eligible to retire in the next two years.
"We continue to express our concerns and needs for additional civilian and sworn staff. Our vacancy listing reflects that, while we continue to do more with less, we struggle with the need for key staff in key areas. Some of the needs are mandated by the Consent Decree," Querrard said.
Querrard raised the same concern in budget hearings last year as well. (See Related Links below) He went on to describe recruitment efforts, saying Personnel had sent them 82 candidates, of whom the VIPD recommended 35 enter the police academy.
But recruits, while vital, are not the full answer, because there is an especially severe shortage of supervisory officers, Querrard said. To address that, the department is "working to expedite" putting in place step raises for supervisory personnel that were agreed to in the Law Enforcement Supervisor’s Union’s 2010 contract, he said.
Similarly V.I. Fire Service Director Steve Brow said the Fire Service has been losing personnel to retirement faster than it can replace them and that short-staffing is busting their budget by adding to overtime.
"From Fiscal Year 2007 to present, the service lost 62 fire personnel; 14 in the St. Thomas/St. John district and 48 in the St. Croix district," Brow said.
Manpower shortage accounts for a large portion of the Service’s overtime budget, he said. Right now there are 49 fire personnel eligible to retire – 19 in the St. Thomas/St. John District and 30 in the St. Croix District. If all retire, it will create "additional undue hardship" and add to overtime costs, so more firefighters need to be hired, he said.
To further complicate the situation, the St. Thomas/St. John District has 17 fire personnel, and St. Croix has one, who serve in the National Guard Reserves. Four of these firefighters will be deployed later this year, hurting manning levels, he said. This causes overtime to meet minimum personnel levels.
For this fiscal year, Fire Service overtime costs stand at just more than $1 million, while the Fire Service’s budget allotment for overtime is only $250,000, he said.
Querrard testified that crime has gone down over the last year. Comparing October 2013 through April 2014 to the same period a year before, "there has been a 19 percent reduction" in violent crimes in the territory. During that same period, there was a 32 percent reduction in rapes, he said.
Crimes against property such as burglaries and grand larcenies have decreased 38 and 18 percent respectively, Querrard testified. St. Croix saw a 53 percent decline in robberies on St. Croix, after a rash of robberies the year before. So far this fiscal year, the VIPD recovered 110 firearms versus 104 the same period a year earlier. Murder arrests increased from 12 in 2013 to 18 so far in 2014, he said.
There have been 19 murders this calendar year, with 10 on St. Thomas, eight on St. Croix and one on St. John, he said.
Querrard presented the department’s FY15 General Fund budget request of $57.6 million. That represents a $1.3 million increase from the FY14 appropriation.
The VIPD also expects $2.1 million in federal funding and another $850,000 from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund and other local funding. Another $3.3 million for the department is appropriated in the miscellaneous section of the budget, with $3 million of that slated for meeting consent decree requirements. That brings total police funding to $64 million.
Of the General Fund appropriation, $33.3 million is for wages and salaries; $13.8 million is for federal Social Security and Medicare taxes and fringe benefits; $3 million is for supplies; and $4.4 million is for other services and charges.
Fire Service officials defended the department’s Fiscal Year 2015 recommended General Fund budget of $16.4 million. That is a slight decrease from $17.2 million in FY14. With another $862,000 in local funds from fees, fines and other unappropriated funds, Fire Service’s total FY15 budget is projected at $17.2 million.
Wages and salaries comprise $11 million; Social Security, Medicare and benefits another $4.8 million; other services and charges $193,000; and $309,000 for utilities.
Office of Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb also presented her department’s FY15 proposed operating budget of $3.9 million – nearly unchanged from last year.
The FY15 OMB budget includes $2 million from the General Fund and $1.9 million from the Indirect Cost Fund, which consists of federal payments for local government services. The General Fund budget funds 23 positions, with $1.2 million in salaries and wages; $472,000 in benefits; $239,000 in other services and charges; and $74,000 for utilities. The Indirect Cost Fund will fund 13 positions, for $816,000 in wages in salaries; $316,000 for benefits; $699,000 for other services and charges; and $40,000 for utilities.