By Margie Plunkett
Nearly a month after Ocean Ridge approved 12 hour-shifts for police officers, effectively cutting their hourly wages, commissioners found themselves voting to budget added attorney fees for representation on a town policemen’s petition seeking to unionize.
Commissioners agreed at the Aug. 2 meeting to budget another $5,000 for legal fees. Otherwise, their discussion of the petition to the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission for collective bargaining was uniformative — besides the brief banter referring to a “do’s-and-don’ts list” of what each member could discuss relative to the petition. Mayor Ken Kaleel summed it up, saying, “I concluded, say nothing.”
The petition — as well as the shift change — comes on the heels of an expanding coverage area for Ocean Ridge police, who recently won a three-year $185,000 contract to patrol Briny Breezes beginning Oct. 1.
Ocean Ridge police officers began working 12-hour shifts July 26, a move seen as easing scheduling and saving the town money. For patrolmen, however, it meant lower hourly rates and less overtime pay.
Officers will work 84 hours every two weeks instead of 80, but receive the same annual salary as previously, lowering their hourly rate. The new work schedule doesn’t apply to dispatchers.
“I don’t want to be a dictator and mandate this, but we have to do what’s administratively sound,” Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi said at the July 12 commission meeting. “The only complaint I’ve heard is the reduced hourly rate.”
“We would love to, but can’t give them more,” Mayor Ken Kaleel said.
The officers each would work 104 hours more annually; but the town would give officers 44 hours more holiday pay to reduce the added hours to 60.
Ocean Ridge will see a savings in overtime as officers work four more regular hours each pay period and fewer overtime hours will be required. “For those who have become reliant on overtime pay, there will be a lot less overtime,” Yannuzzi said. The chief has already reduced the overtime budget to $100,000 from $120,000 in anticipation.
Officers voiced concern at the July 12 town meeting about the change.
Sgt. Dan Tinfina, who has been with Ocean Ridge for 21 years, pointed out that the hourly rate of overtime will also fall because it will be calculated on the lower regular hourly rate. Other towns that have made the move to 12-hour shifts have not reduced police officer’s hourly wages, he said.
“Manalapan, Delray Beach, South Palm Beach and Boca Raton pay the four hours to their officers in straight time,” Officer Bob Massamino told Commissioners. “There is not a reduction in hourly rate. We want what our neighbors get. As far as morale problems, you do have a morale problem.”
In addition to the municipalities Massamino mentioned, Boynton Beach, Gulf Stream and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office have made the move to 12-hour shifts, according to Yannuzzi.
Officers will be able to choose their shift every six months, which, with planning, could give them attractive holiday periods off, Yannuzzi said. They receive four hours more in holiday pay.
The schedule means every other weekend off with a three-day weekend. “Once you go to the shift and you start to have the benefit of every other weekend off, it’s hard to go back,” he said.
Kaleel said, “It sounds like it’s a fairer method.”
If the new schedule doesn’t work, the police force will go back to the old one, Yannuzzi said.
Resident John Wooten backed Yannuzzi, noting “he’s manning up” in difficult economic times when cuts are necessary. While acknowledging that officers must work more hours, Wooten also said, “You can’t be a good guy talking about morale right now. Man up.”
Police Investigator Hal Hutchins said he’d rather see the shift change “than give what the mayor alluded to — to cut two or three positions.”
Hutchinson was promoted later in July to lieutenant — second in command at the police department — and sworn in at the Aug. 2 meeting. He was scheduled to be promoted at the start of the new budget year, Oct. 1, but Yannuzzi asked commissioners to accelerate it.
Hutchinson received a 10 percent raise, but Yannuzzi said it was a savings for the town because the lieutenant no longer can receive overtime pay or extra holiday hours.
In other business: At a July 27 budget workshop, Ocean Ridge recommended a tax rate of $5.40 for each $1,000 of assessed property value, to fund a $5.3 million proposed budget.
The rate is the same as last year but will generate less tax revenue because property values have fallen 7 percent to $678.8 million this year. The rollback rate, which would produce the same amount of tax revenue as last year, is 5.8.
The tentative 5.4 tax rate can still be lowered before the budget is adopted, but not raised. In addition to falling property values and tax revenues, state tax revenues and reduced construction required the proposed rate, the budget document said.