By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Last night’s annual City Council review of proposed spending for the fire and police departments was somewhat of an oddity, at least compared to recent years.
Police Chief Alan DeNaro said he was satisfied to be getting three more patrolmen, although he said he could use more. In past years, Mayor James Fiorentini has cut police staffing and spending over the chief’s objections.
The new positions will bring the police compliment of officers to 91, the mayor said. His budget also includes money for two nighttime walking police beats in the downtown area.
“We want people who are out with their families to see our officers,” DeNaro said. “And we want criminals and the disruptive element that’s out there to see that downtown is not a good place for them.”
All told, there are five new police officers joining the department, including four who are starting at the police academy Monday and one who will begin her training in September, DeNaro said. Two of officers are filling vacant positions.
DeNaro, who as public safety commissioner also oversee the Fire Department, even declined to identify additional items he would like to see in his budget when he was invited to add to a spending “wish list” councilors are compiling.
“A lot of our issues have been resolved between the union and management,” officer Rick Welch, vice president of the patrolman’s association, said outside the meeting after DeNaro presented the police budget.
The police union has been especially critical of low staffing levels in recent years, saying it has put the safety of residents at risk and hurt the morale of overworked officers.
“There’s been much better cooperation between the two sides than there’s been in the past,” Welch said last night.
The meeting was also notable for who wasn’t there. Unlike prior years when firefighters packed the room to lobby for more men or better equipment, not a single firefighter was there last night.
Fiorentini reported that overtime spending is “way down” this year in the Fire Department, in sharp contrast to previous years. The mayor said he cut the department’s initial overtime request by $200,000, but that the overtime account is still expected to end the fiscal year June 30 with a $100,000 surplus.
“The chiefs did it by actively watching the budget, monitoring sick leave and working with the union,” Fiorentini said of DeNaro and Fire chief Richard Borden. “And we filled some of the vacant positions, which also helped.”
DeNaro said sick leave abuse is no longer the problem in the Fire Department that it has been in prior years.
“The message has been that sick and injury leave is for when you are sick or injured, not when you don’t feel like working or want to watch a game,” DeNaro said. “Most are pretty good about it now. It’s been a culture change.”
Fiorentini told councilors that crime in the city is down and morale in the Fire Department is up.
“Improving the fire and police departments takes active management, and that’s what the chiefs have done,” the mayor said.
DeNaro told councilors that a fence recently built around the police station’s parking area was paid for with money confiscated from drug dealers.
Borden said fire trucks are finally getting computers and firefighters are getting larger hoses.
Not everything was positive. Borden said the city’s fire stations are in poor and worsening condition, noting the mayor cut $250,000 he wanted for building maintenance.
Fiorentini said he intends to devote money for the fire houses in a capital plan he is working on. He said he expects to offer the plan to the council for its approval in a month or so.
DeNaro and Borden both said calls for police and fire services increased this year over last year.
“There’s a lot more calls for traffic issues and quality of life issues, like noise complaints and concerns about crowds and public drinking,” DeNaro said. “The public wants and expects a lot more from us than they used to.”
DeNaro said he intends to focus on developing a list of reserve police officers and firefighters in the coming months. He said it’s needed to expedite the hiring process when the departments loses officers and firefighters who resign or retire.
Councilors wrapped their review of the mayor’s $162,637,631 budget proposal last night. They are scheduled to vote on it at their meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall.