Houghton considers additional officer

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton City Manager Eric Waara talks during Wednesday’s budget hearing. The city is debating adding another police officer to lessen its reliance on part-time officers.

HOUGHTON — With part-time officers increasingly harder to come by, Houghton is discussing the potential of adding another full-time officer.

It remains to be seen whether the city has funds to do it, City Manager Eric Waara said.

“The chief has asked if we could hire one more person,” he said. “I look at him and go ‘I don’t know if we can afford it.'”

Adding an officer to the department would cost between $80,000 to $85,000 a year, he said.

The city budgeted $421,900 for salaries and wages in the department, up from $409,600 last year.

Police Chief John Donnelly said the department, while one of the best in the Upper Peninsula, had gotten to be something of a “training center” for new officers.

“We save some money through the years hiring part-time officers, but it’s a continual battle … you train five guys, and get one here full time,” he said. “Phenomenal officers that they may be, they’re not their best in the first six months.”

The supply has been economy-based, Donnelly said. Where there might have been five or six well-qualified candidates for part-time jobs, that number has dwindled, he said.

Donnelly said the department would still want to retain a smaller pool of part-time workers, due to the unpredictability of police needs.

The department tries to maintain two officers on staff during a shift, aside from late-night hours when the department partners with Hancock and Michigan Technological University.

“We don’t have enough officers to do that without relying on a lot of part-time,” Donnelly said.

The position would include odd shifts and taking spots when other people are on vacation, Waara said.

He and Donnelly are looking at the distribution of hours within the existing structure to see where there are areas of overlap that could be eliminated with a new officer. They’ve gotten to the point of bringing the amount down to an extra $40,000. Councilor John Sullivan said he thought the city could afford that. But Waara is also looking for guarantees that the number won’t climb from there.

Sullivan brought up the surplus of about $139,000 in the general fund budget. But that doesn’t take into account contributions to parking deck work or other public improvement projects.

Donnelly said other departments such as Ishpeming and Negaunee have larger full-time staffs than Houghton.

“We will work hard at putting the numbers together and making sure that pie is divided properly, but there is going to be an ask of the city,” he said.

Councilor Dan Salo asked if there would be a reduction of overtime pay. The city is budgeting $22,000 for overtime for the coming year, up from $21,300 in the amended 2018-19 budget.

Donnelly anticipated there would be, but said it is hard to predict.

Even a full-time job may not put a stop to turnover, Councilor Mike Needham said.

“If we can’t offer them, ‘You’re no longer the lowest seniority person,’ there will also be that unknown risk that they may go somewhere too,” he said. “It’s just less likely when they’re not part-time.”