|Williamstown Police Seeking 9 Percent Budget Hike|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
05:45PM / Tuesday, March 21, 2023
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A return to pre-pandemic level staffing and an adjustment to the commonwealth's police reforms have the Police Department seeking a 9 percent increase in funding in the fiscal year 2024 budget.
Police Chief Mike Ziemba last week presented his budget to the Finance Committee alongside Town Accountant Anna Osborn and Town Manager Robert Menicicoci.
Fin Comm Chair Melissa Cragg noted that the WPD spending plan is an outlier compared with other town budget centers, which are seeking more modest 3 to 5 percent increases in the budget that will go to the annual town meeting in May. But Ziemba explained that there are good reasons why his department needs a bump in staffing in FY24.
Primarily, it is a bump back to where the department was just four years ago.
"If you look back to 2019, we had 17 full-time employees plus part-time officers," Ziemba said. "The part-time officers at the time were full-time dispatchers but cross-trained as part-time officers, so any time we had vacancies, sickness, injuries, vacations, those dispatchers could fill in patrol shifts.
"Since police reform, which is a good thing in many ways, there is essentially no such thing in Massachusetts as part-time officers anymore. Every police officer has to trained as a full-time police officer to work in Massachusetts."
That change, combined with a drop in manpower precipitated by controversies that racked the WPD in 2020, leaves the department short-handed relative to its 2019 numbers.
"Currently, we have 16 full-time employees: myself and all patrol officers with no supervisors anymore," said Ziemba, who was promoted in-house from a supervisory role to become the interim chief in 2020.
"We don't have any flexibility now. Every time someone takes a day off, it's covered with overtime. Our overtime budget has skyrocketed. We don't have the flexibility we need. A lot of those shifts during the day, I cover. So instead of working in the office doing administrative work, I'm out on patrol. That's kind of the nature of a small town — but not on a regular basis."
At the same time, the WPD needs to reconfigure its work force to meet the community's needs, Ziemba said.
"We also have seen an uptick in the number of calls that need more follow-up, more investigation," he said. "We used to have an investigator who was a patrol officer. If we had a big-ticket larceny or a sexual assault or a serious crime that requires more in-depth investigation, that person would be pulled from patrol to handle the case.
"We need to flip it the other way. We need a dedicated detective who can just work on these cases, not say, 'I'll get to it in four or five days when I'm not covering a patrol shift.'"
Ziemba said the budget he submitted to the Fin Comm accounts both for the added full-time officer and the promotion of officers to supervisory positions.
The latter move would increase the accountability in the department that many in town called for starting in 2020 with the release of a a lawsuit that alleged numerous incidents of racism and sexual misconduct in the department.
"[The supervisor] is an extension of me when I'm not there," Ziemba said in answer to a question from the floor by Select Board member Randal Fippinger, who attended the March 15 Fin Comm meeting. "The supervisors know they are responsible for their patrol shift as well as the people who work for them."
At last week's regular annual review of the public safety budget, Cragg offered Ziemba a chance to respond to a discussion that cropped up in town this winter.
Confessing that she has, in the past, thought about whether the town needs 24/7 patrol coverage by the WPD, Cragg referenced a hypothetical raised at a March Select Board meeting about considering whether some overnight shifts could be covered by State Police as a cost-saving measure.
Ziemba said that is not a viable option for the town.
"State Police run out of the Cheshire barracks," he said. "They cover everything Pittsfield north. They typically are responsible for towns like New Ashford, Clarksburg, Savoy, Windsor — towns that don't have full-time police departments.
"A lot of times, they rely on us or North Adams to answer calls in those small towns. They only have two patrols on a shift, just like we do. If you had a call in the middle of the night, they might be in Windsor booking a crash. They might see you in 45 minutes or it might be three hours."
Ziemba said that in 2022, the WPD's night shift responded to 1,999 calls, or about five calls per shift.
"When it's a domestic or mental health issue, there's not a lot of time to respond to those things," the chief said.
The proposed budget for the WPD for FY24 is $1.523 million, up $119,600 from FY23's figure of $1.404 million, an increase of 8.5 percent.