County executive and sheriff spar in dueling statements
In a meeting punctuated by Putnam County legislators’ clashes with each other and the sheriff, the Protective Services Committee on Tuesday (Nov. 10) endorsed spending $45,000 to examine law-enforcement overtime practices.
Meeting by audio connection, the three-person committee also approved the transfers of $28,320 from county jail accounts to the Sheriff’s Department for overtime paid from July through September. But it blocked another transfer from one account to another to cover overtime anticipated for the remainder of 2020.
On Nov. 4, the Legislature had declined to act on the $28,320 transfer, triggering an additional go-round at the committee level.
County Executive MaryEllen Odell recommended both the $45,000 study and the consultants to conduct it, public accountants Bonadio & Co., of Pittsford. According to Finance Commissioner Bill Carlin, who participated in the committee meeting, the county had previously hired Bonadio to uncover Medicaid fraud.
Carlin and some legislators observed that the overtime issue did not originate with the current sheriff, Robert Langley Jr.
“We’ve been going back and forth regarding Sheriff’s Department overtime” since at least the days of Sheriff Robert Thoubboron, who left office after being defeated in 2001 by Sheriff Don Smith. (Langley beat Smith in 2017 and faces reelection in 2021.) “We never seem to get past the arguing and bickering about what is right. So we thought we’d bring in an independent analysis.”
Carlin said the move meshes with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order that municipalities and counties review their law-enforcement practices.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the nine-member Legislature, and is its only Democrat, said that “while it’s a good idea to look at efficiencies in the Sheriff’s Department,” the county might also look at other departments’ finances. She questioned spending $45,000 during the economic downturn and COVID-19 threat and recommended the county instead spend the money on the Sheriff’s Department marine unit, which was eliminated in the 2021 budget.
Montgomery also raised concerns about the hiring of the consultants. “It’s clear that during the budget process this was a done deal, and we weren’t aware of it,” she said.
Several legislators expressed their support for the study.
“The Sheriff’s Department overtime budget always seems to be a very large number,” said Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel. “It’s very possible that maybe it’s the way it has to be. But we can’t go wrong having an outside group give an opinion. We might find some surprises. We might even find that there is no answer, that this is the way it has to be.”
Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson said lawmakers should be receptive to “any overture to improve efficiencies.”
Langley said he looks forward to working with Bonadio. However, he said, “there’s one solution” to the overtime crunch: “Hire more deputies.”
Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac urged Langley to provide a cost-benefit analysis on doing that, but Montgomery noted that Odell had forbidden any new county hires in 2020.
Langley remarked that sometimes it’s less expensive to pay overtime because of the cost of benefits such as health care for new employees. He also said a national standard for a suburban county is to have one officer for every 1,000 residents, while Putnam has one officer for every 8,567 residents. (A 2016 study by the U.S. Justice Department found that police agencies serving 50,000 to 249,000 people have an average of 1.7 full-time officers per 1,000 residents.)
Sheriff’s Department requests for the fund transfers for overtime pay from July through September consistently listed the reasons that deputies were racking up extra hours: Two deputies recalled to military duty, two in police academy training, COVID-19, staffing demands during street protests and a cut of $104,000 to the department’s budget request for 2020. In addition, new police union contracts provided for salary raises.
The discussion intensified when the committee weighed a Sheriff’s Department request to transfer $101,192 from its accounts at the jail, which Langley oversees, to cover patrol deputies’ overtime through the end of the year.
“Your choice, as a legislator, is to approve the transfer or go on the record as cutting patrols to areas in Putnam that have no police coverage” without his department, he said. “Is it the intention of the individual legislators to reduce police services to those communities? Are we cutting patrols: Yes or no?”
“We all want police protection,” Nacerino responded. “I take offense to this scare tactic.” She argued that Langley should return with comprehensive data on overtime needs through Dec. 31. “It’s just keeping a vigilant eye on where the money is going and how it’s being spent,” she said.
Sullivan added that “the taxpayers are electing us to do what we’re doing.”
Legislator William Gouldman of Putnam Valley echoed Langley’s comment that some towns rely on the Sheriff’s Department. He also reminded his colleagues that Langley’s request simply moves dollars from one place to another, at no additional cost to taxpayers. He urged the committee to “please put this through for a vote” by the full Legislature.
Legislator Paul Jonke of Southeast, who chairs the committee, attempted to do so but neither Nacerino nor Sullivan, the other two members, supported the motion, and the $101,192 transfer failed.
Outside the Legislature, Odell, a Republican, and Langley, a Democrat, issued dueling statements. The county executive asserted on Monday (Nov. 9) that she and the legislators must “see that taxpayer funds are spent wisely. Our focus on overtime spending has never been more necessary, especially due to the devastating economic effects resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
She said that last year, deputy sheriffs and corrections officers received $2.8 million in overtime, that 48 of the top 100 highest-paid county employees in 2019 were deputies who earned an average of $128,430 with overtime and that three deputies made more than the sheriff. (In 2018, nine of the top 10 overtime earners in the county were deputies or corrections officers, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.)
“I am not disparaging the efforts of the hardworking men and women of the Sheriff’s Department, but overtime costs need to be managed in every department or they continue to grow,” she said.
Noting that the Sheriff’s Department operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Langley responded that “to ensure public safety and the safety of our deputies, a minimum number of patrols” must be maintained, which often means deputies work overtime.
Addressing supposed salary anomalies, he said “the fact that deputies made more than the sheriff,” an elected official who holds a salaried position, “says that these outstanding members of the department are dedicated to serving the community and this agency.”
Langley also claimed his administration follows the same practices as his predecessors but “it seems that standard business practices acceptable under past administrations now raise questions by the county when the duly elected sheriff does not share the same party line.” The Sheriff’s Department “puts the people first to ensure their safety and constitutional rights,” he wrote. “This sheriff does not play personal politics with public safety or any aspect of the office of sheriff.”