Organizers worry about extra costs to cover police staffing

Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, March 5, 2010

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Overtime is the latest cost savings target in the city's public safety department, and some popular downtown festivals could fall victim.

Revenue-short city officials are watching their pennies after losing $3.8 million in annual state monies and seeing a drop in sales tax receipts. In January, during his first month in office, Public Safety Commissioner Richard Wirth says he reduced overtime costs paid to police by more than 30 percent.

But his latest move has kicked it up a notch. Wirth recently told non-profit groups and others that they must pay for their own police staffing at popular outdoor celebrations like First Night Saratoga and the Victorian Streetwalk. Charging for overtime costs at the events will save $29,000, Wirth said, adding that cutting bloated overtime costs was part of why he was elected.

"With today's economic times, I'm getting positive feedback," he said.

Not all are happy. Groups say the added cost could sink their events because their budgets are already stretched. First Night Saratoga will cost its sponsor, Saratoga Arts, more than $1,000 in new security costs. Underwriters of the city's July 4 Fireworks in Congress Park will have to find an extra $2,700, and organizers of bicycle and foot races also will have to pay. Even Fasig-Tipton must fund more than $1,000 for its annual yearling sales off East Avenue.

The amounts, based on how long police are needed to secure streets and traffic for events, worry some organizers in this tourist-dependent city.

"I don't think people understand how close these are to not happening," special events planner Susan Farnsworth warned. Farnsworth helps organize the Hats Off to Saratoga and Final Stretch Weekend festivals that bookend the annual Saratoga Race Course meet, and the Victorian Streetwalk, which is attended by more than 20,000 people, but requires police to close Broadway.

Offering music and more in city streets to herald racing costs more than $662 to police. The Victorian Streetwalk costs more than $1,500 for security. The events combined attract 90,000 people a year to downtown, many of whom spend money in shops, Farnsworth said. "All that sales tax will be lost. It doesn't make any sense. I ask them to look at the bigger picture," she said.

Under the city's labor contracts, officers who get overtime can take it in added pay or time off that they can cash out at any time. Overtime must first be offered to officers with the highest seniority. The city of about 29,000 people paid $805,000 in police overtime and "comp time" in 2007; $965,000 in 2008; and $886,000 in 2009, Finance Commissioner Kenneth Ivins said.

City police, which recently lost seven officers to budget cuts and had to drop its 21-year-old DARE program at elementary schools, K-9 patrol and other programs, are reserving comment on the overtime cuts until they see how it plays out, PBA President John Catone said. Overtime costs rise during warmer months, when the city's population can triple.

The overtime reductions come as city police report that in 2009, calls for service increased by 6 percent to 30,795; total criminal arrests jumped 43 percent to 1,068; and traffic tickets and arrests went up 25 percent to 5,319. The total number of violent crimes in 2009 went down by one to 22, and property crimes decreased from 602 to 579, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Asked if the police had an inflated overtime budget, Catone said that the public needed to better understand what was involved and what tasks police perform.

Public Safety officials start meeting with the various groups next week.

Wirth believes agreement can be found, but Farnsworth thinks at least a few outdoor events are at risk of not returning.

"It could change the face of Saratoga," she said.