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Letter: Norwalk Overtime Should Be Rethought

NORWALK, Conn. — There have been several letters in local publications recently about the use of police overtime for construction projects in Norwalk, mostly negative. This has become a very tough but important issue in this economy, when so many folks are out of work or underemployed, and can barely afford to pay for food, or their property tax. I hope the police union and officials are sensitive to this issue, and understand how frustrating it is for city residents to see city budgets slashed on essential services, road paving, and education, while many of their colleagues are making up to $200,000 a year based on the overtime of $40 to $80 an hour standing in the street on jobsites. This is not pleasant work by any means, but it is still nice work if you can get it.

Of course, the safety factor is important, which is why they are there in the first place, and I am always glad to see a police officer near the workers and equipment on a dig in the middle of the road, especially with the way people drive in Norwalk. No doubt, lives have been saved and injuries prevented, with incalculable benefit to families and society. Also, I am sure there is a crime deterrence effect, since we no longer have beat cops in our city, and this is the only time a police presence is visible in many of our neighborhoods.

However, the current system, established when public money flowed more freely, costs Norwalk taxpayers millions every year, and is clearly unsustainable. It is also a hot topic in City Hall, because not only do outside contractors have to pay these costs, but also other city departments, which come out of their already strained budgets and has a direct negative impact on urgent capital projects that the city needs to maintain its infrastructure. So I think we are often misled when we are told this overtime doesn't cost the taxpayers anything, because it is paid for by both city departments and outside contractors, who naturally pass the overtime costs directly onto taxpayers based on what they charge the city for their work.

The other big cost factor is the fuel use, and severe wear and tear on the engines that are left idling for hours. I wonder how these costs (which must add up to hundreds of thousands a year based on the total number of jobsites) are handled, and who they are charged to. Any mechanic will tell you long idling will wear out oil pumps, A/C compressors, catalytic convertors, and engine blocks faster than anything else, since engines run inefficiently while idling, especially with A/C on.

I know the emergency lights need to run also, but I wonder if they can run on battery power for some length of time, especially since police vehicles have extra battery capacity. Are there any idling guidelines issued by the NPD to reduce fuel use, and engine wear? I have never seen a cruiser on a jobsite with its engine turned off. There is also the environmental cost of all that extra air pollution caused by the idling, which may be hard to quantify in terms of cost, but is still a real issue when anti-idling campaigns are going on in cities around the country to cut pollution and save resources.

I do a lot of driving in other towns besides Norwalk, and many of them do not have police cruisers stationed at construction sites, even in neighboring New Canaan which is a much wealthier town. The police officer is dropped off and picked up by a colleague, or he or she drives there in their own car as I have seen. There are no emergency lights, but they wear bright orange vests and folks definitely slow down, especially with the required big orange signs that say SLOW — CONSTRUCTION. I am sure the costs to taxpayers are much reduced there as a result. As they say, maybe that's why they are so wealthy.

I do not disparage any police officer trying to improve worksite safety and also make as much money as they can with overtime, and it is hard work, especially in bad weather. In their regular line of duty they certainly deserve our full support. However, I hope that police officials and the union can at least begin a discussion on a way to bring these jobsite costs down to a level that reflects our new economic reality. Taxpayers simply cannot afford to support wasteful practices, and there surely are many ways that the extreme costs in labor and fuel of this overtime practice can be trimmed.

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