Council Rejects Request To Lift Hiring Freeze

OCEAN CITY – The City Council denied this week a request to lift the hiring freeze that has been looming over the town’s public safety departments the last couple years.

City Manager Dennis Dare, Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and Fire Chief Chris Larmore have repeatedly expressed to the council their need in hiring officers, fire fighters and paramedics.

Currently, the police department is in need of six police officers and the fire department needs six fire fighter-paramedics.

While discussing the motion to decrease newly hired town employee pay during this week’s meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan said, “We just had six individuals chosen to go into the police academy and they were approved in this year’s budget.”

During the 2011 budget approval, the council consented to have the chief select candidates in order to go ahead with the necessary procedure to place them in training. That procedure came to a halt when the council decided to decrease town employee pay and benefits to cut down city costs. The chief had to place the selected candidates on hold until that list of ordinances had been finalized.

Police Captain Kevin Kirstein approached the council this week as a “concerned taxpayer”. He addressed the majority of the council in attempts to persuade it to allow the six candidates for each safety department to immediately be hired.

Kirstein pointed out that the police academy in Salisbury only runs two, six-month training sessions per year, one in January and July. He added that state law requires newly certified officers to participate in field training after graduation, adding an additional two months onto training.

“If new police officers are not hired before the new pension plan is rolled out, at the end of 2011, that means it will be September 2012 before the first new officer is fully trained and on the street,” Kirstein said.

Kirstein argued there are presently 10 officers placed in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). The six officers currently needed, plus those 10 who have to opportunity to retire, and the variable of officers to fall ill or leave the department creates a large gap to fill.

“It is possible that you could be as many as 20 officers short by the time the newly officers are available in September of 2012,” Kirstein said.

Kirstein reviewed possible solutions. He said that temporary officers would be a poor solution to this problem. One reason being the law limits their use to five months per year. Another reason is their pay requires time and a half.

“Heightening their pay scales to cover the shortage, that doesn’t seem like a very fiscally responsible solution,” he said. “The reality also looms that we reduce services to our citizens and visitors whose safety you are duty bound to protect. At what point do you tell your police department what it is that you are not going to want them to do because they are not going to have enough police officers to do what the taxpayers and citizens of ocean city come to expect them to do?”

Kirstein alluded to the fact money has already been spent to recruit and test candidates and a “smooth transition has been planned by the police department of the largest man power switch over in Ocean City history.”

Kirstein asserted that the amount of money spent exceeds $55,000.

“The fact that you’re going to have to spend that money again to repeat this process when you finally allow those positions to be filled with be nothing short of outrageous to every taxpayer,” Kirstein said.

The attendance of Ocean City police officers, firefighters, EMT’s and paramedics was at an all-time high at this week’s meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, Council President Jim Hall had said that any actions made by the council should not be considered as a personal attack on any town employee.

“Those guys and girls [fellow police officers] are responsible for my life and my lively hood and getting me home,” Corporal Dennis Eade said. “If we’re going to be without six of them, or 20 of them down the road, that is very personnel to me, my family, and to the people of Ocean City.”

Eade also works as a state certified instructor at the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy.

“I see what Ocean City puts in that academy verses what other places put in the academy,” he said. “I’m here to tell you we do have the best police officers in the state of Maryland.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight said she was going to take a “stab at it” and placed a motion to lift the hiring freeze in public safety, in order to hire the six police officers and six firefighters-paramedics. Her motion was seconded by Councilman Doug Cymek, but died in a vote of 3-4, with Council members Joe Hall, Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas in opposition.

 “I don’t know what to do,” Knight said.

Knight was frustrated by the fact that the majority of the council didn’t even discuss why they would not lift the hiring freeze.

“I believe with all my fiber that public safety will be jeopardized by not filling these positions,” Kirstein said. “We have moments to spare. The police academy starts Wednesday…or we need to look toward that July academy.”