Budget snafu leaves police recruits in lurch

After a budget glitch left police recruits in limbo as to their starting date, Alderman Ike Carothers [D-29] yesterday called for hearings to determine why their hiring was postponed and how the city botched communications.

Recruits received a letter instructing them to show up on January 30 to fill out the final paperwork for entrance into the police academy, says Carothers, who chairs the police and fire committee.

However, when they showed up, they were told that their class, originally scheduled to begin on Feb. 19, was postponed until some unspecified time in the future.

Carothers criticized city officials for waiting until yesterday to tell committee members that a new start date of May 19 had been chosen. The 50 new recruits still had not been officially notified as of yesterday.

"You've got young recruits who quit their jobs and came in expecting to start their training," says Carothers. "They were told literally just to go home and not even told when to come back."

A potentially thorny issue is the 40-year age ceiling for police recruits. It was not clear at the time of the hearing whether any of the recruits would be turning 40 before the new start date in May.

Also unclear was whether recruits would have to undergo additional drug testing or repeat other requirements before entering the class.

The Police Department says the class was delayed because the city budget office had not approved it. Budget officials must okay all hiring.

The Police Department submitted their hiring plan to the budget office in early January, according to Marv Shear, a police administrative supervisor.

However, the police learned in late January that the budget office did not approve their "anticipated" starting date of Feb. 19, which had already been communicated to recruits.

Jon Johnson, deputy budget director for the city budget office, says the 2008 budget calls for getting 50 seasoned officers out from behind their desks and onto the streets in the first quarter.

"For the first part of the year, that was going to be the emphasis," says Johnson.

The aldermen were puzzled as to why the reassignments should affect training for the new class of recruits.

"What does getting seasoned cops on the streets have to do with training the new recruits?" says Alderman Ed Burke [D-14].

"The new recruits were to be hired by the end of the 3rd quarter of 2008," says Johnson. "There is usually some give and take between the department and the budget office in terms of reaching required goals."

The budget office is in the midst of processing the paperwork for the administrative hires who will replace the seasoned officers scheduled to leave desk duty, says Johnson.

Budget office spokeswoman Wendy Abrams shed little light on the matter.

"We could have started the new recruit class and administrative hires at the same time," says Abrams. "We decided to achieve our objective of sworn strength by focusing on getting seasoned officers on the street first."

Alderman Margaret Laurino [D-39] says she considered the budget office's explanation to be "disingenuous."

"When the mayor gave his budget address last October, I think the intent was to have more police officers on the streets for this year," says Laurino. "If you start them in May, that doesn't put them on the street for much of this year."

Carothers says he will demand an explanation from the budget department in full hearings that will also involve human resources officials and the police department.

He said they will also focus heavily on the way the department communicates with recruits about their on-going status as they move through the hiring and training process.

"We have a lack of communication with recruits in particular," said Carothers. "We have young people who call us all the time who wonder about their status in the police or in the fire department. Both departments have been terrible about communicating with recruits."

In other news, Carothers postponed a hearing on the collective bargaining process with the police department until April.

Carothers says he wanted to give community organizations a chance to "weigh in" on what they'd like to see in police contracts "that can actually affect the way they [the police] operate."

"The community and these organizations often have good ideas that we think can help the police department to function in more effective ways," says Carothers.