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Council applauds Public Safety Dept. for display of teamwork

January 16, 2013

BERKLEY — The city is filling some vacant public safety positions with temporary contract employees, thanks to an agreement reached between the department director and union leaders.

The Berkley City Council unanimously approved a series of changes Jan. 7, allowing the Public Safety Department to bring in a pair of non-sworn officers on a short-term basis while one employee enters the police academy and another serves overseas in the military.

Councilman Jack Blanchard, who has served as a volunteer firefighter with the department for nearly 30 years, expressed his support for the proposals. He praised Berkley public safety’s recent approach of hiring contract employees in order to help recruit new, young talent — many of whom are later hired and trained as sworn officers.

“This program of bringing people in (as contractors) has been an excellent opportunity for us to work with these people, evaluate their level of expertise and get them trained in how we work,” Blanchard said. “And, as you’ve seen with the last two that we’ve promoted, it’s a very, very good program for us and our succession of keeping well-trained people in our Public Safety Department.”

Berkley has also been utilizing contracts for the department’s leadership positions in recent months. In October, the council authorized a two-year agreement with Public Safety Director Richard Eshman, following his retirement from the city. The contract included a significant reduction to the chief’s salary and made him ineligible to receive fringe benefits. This echoed a similar move that the council made in July, when they approved a one-year contract with retired Deputy Public Safety Director Bob North.

According to Eshman, both new contractor jobs are for the department’s “desk officer” position, in which an employee stays inside the building and functions as the emergency fire truck driver, backup dispatcher and prisoner processer, thereby freeing up the regular officers to remain on the street. This role must be maintained 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Because of cooperation from the public safety union, Eshman said, for the last few years, the job has been partially filled by a contract employee.

“About three years ago,” the chief explained, “the Berkley Public Safety Officers Association stepped up to the plate during some difficult economic times and allowed us to replace a sworn union position with a contractor position. So this is an ongoing spot; we are just seeking a renewal of that spot up through the end of this year.”

With the council’s approval, the contract employee who previously held that position, Catherine Pounders, entered the Wayne County Regional Police Academy Jan. 11. Pounders will become the department’s next sworn public safety officer, following the retirement of officer Mary Staron.

The department’s new temporary desk officer is Brian Smith, whose compensation rate is identical to that of the two prior contractors. Smith’s term of employment will run from Jan. 11 through Dec. 31, and he will earn a salary of $41,627.40 with no fringe benefits, such as health insurance, overtime pay or a pension.

A second public safety opening arose as a result of an officer answering the call of duty. As Eshman noted, public safety officer Justin Frost — who is now a sergeant — enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve about four years ago and spent time serving in the war in Afghanistan.

“At the time, he knew that there was a war going on overseas, obviously … but he chose to put himself in harm’s way,” Eshman said. “As if being a police officer and a firefighter wasn’t enough, he elected to serve his country.”

Frost was recently deployed for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He is projected to return home by Oct. 1, but there is no certain date of when he will be able to return to work at the Public Safety Department, as his deployment could wind up being longer or shorter than that projection.

“We’re really proud of Sgt. Frost’s service, not only here in Berkley, where he is an outstanding officer, but also to the country,” Eshman said. “He stepped up, but now the other side of the coin is that we have a hole in our lineup. So while we thank him for his service, now we must try to fill his spot.”

According to Eshman, the public safety union recently voted unanimously to allow the department to hire a contract employee for either one year or until the day that Frost comes back — whichever occurs first. “This shows the measure of civic commitment that our union members have toward the city and the appreciation that they have for Justin Frost’s service,” he said.

Because of the unique nature of this position, though, the department opted to seek out a current employee, rather than hiring a new one. Officer Mike Garnett, who had already been considering retirement, offered to retire early by taking the job and coming back as a contractor. This scenario allowed the department to find someone who was willing to fill Frost’s position for an indeterminate amount of time and would not require any additional training.

“If we were to just hire someone off the street,” Eshman said, “that person would be looking at a very uncertain term of employment. They would probably, by necessity, have to keep looking for work. This saves us all the training time, and it saves us the risk factor of an employee who may or may not gel successfully with this (position). … Mike is a 26-year veteran, and he’s a person who answers the bell every day. In 26 years, he has never called in sick, not once.”

Like Smith, Garnett will serve as the department’s desk officer whenever he is on duty. However, because of his high level of experience and the lack of any necessary training, he will earn a higher salary — $47,000 per year — but with no fringe benefits.

Councilman Alan Kideckel praised the Public Safety Department for its strong sense of teamwork. “Officer Garnett could have retired and gone on to his happy trails,” he said, “but he saw the need and the importance of having someone here. So I think it’s great that he has agreed to stay on for a few extra months, or however long it takes.”

Councilman Dan Terbrack agreed. He contrasted the attitude of public servants in Berkley with that of officials in Washington, D.C., during the contentious fiscal cliff debates, in Lansing with the fight over right-to-work laws, and in the National Hockey League during the recent lockout.

“Our Public Safety Department continues to go above and beyond to do things that other cities and other unions might not do,” he said. “But (they do it) because they know it’s in the best interest of the city, and it’s in the best interest of the officers. They continue to step up and approve agreements like this to keep providing the high-quality, professional public safety service that everyone in this city has come to know and love and appreciate. And I think that can’t be underscored (enough). … A lot of places would not do this; they would not step up; they would draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No, sorry, we’re over here and you’re over there. You figure something out.’ But that’s not how our officers operate. And so I’m very proud to live in Berkley and to have the opportunity to work with our Public Safety Department.”

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