OCEAN CITY — For a variety of reasons including “quality of life issues,” there is a not-so-subtle employee drain in the Ocean City Police Department, resulting in the department requesting one additional officer in its fiscal year 2018 budget, raising concerns over whether one is enough.
During a budget work session on Monday, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro told the Mayor and Council his budget was largely similar to last year’s with one exception. Buzzuro explained for a variety of reasons, his department was requesting one additional police officer to meet the growing challenges created by, among other things, the loss of seven experienced officers over the last year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were quality of life issues, according to the department exit interviews.
The OCPD maintains a full complement of 105 sworn officers, but that number has dipped over the last year. The seven officers that have left have cited the increased demands of a grueling summer season, lots of overtime and an inability to ask for and receive needed time off at other times of the year.
Buzzuro on Monday asked for one additional officer, which he believes could help with the apparent officer drain. Councilman Wayne Hartman asked the chief if adding just one officer would address the issues.
“We’ve lost some officers over quality of life issues and not having the ability to have time off and those kinds of issues,” he said. “Do you think that one more officer is adequate in terms of allowing for time off and meeting your needs in terms of extinguishing that problem?”
Buzzuro said he has had internal meetings with his command staff and while more officers could be needed or wanted, given current budget restraints and other issues, he believes adding one officer could at least alleviate some of the problems. Buzzuro said there was funding in his budget to add the officer, which would cost around $45,000 in salary and benefits and to train and outfit.
“We’ve had discussion after discussion, and we’ve agreed upon one for now,” he said. “That would provide 175 shifts, or 175 opportunities for other officers to get time off.”
Nonetheless, the drop off of current officers remains a concern.
“In the last year or so, there have been seven officers who have left that have cited quality of life as being right up there as the reason for their departure,” he said. “That’s why this has been brought to you for consideration.”
Buzzuro, who took over as OCPD chief in 2013, said he could not recall a similar drop-off in those years.
“Since 2013, I can never recall a time when we’ve had so many officers leaving,” he said. “From what I know and from changes in the profession, it’s very concerning. There are seventy officers on the patrol division and we’ve lost seven. That’s 10 percent. Not only have those officers been vetted and trained, they have experience. We’re losing high-caliber officers too, so that’s part of the unfortunate aspect of this.”
For Hartman, the chief’s comments were enough to question if adding just one officer this year would alleviate the issues.
“I just want to make sure,” he said. “When you look at the number of officers that have left and have cited quality of life issues and the demands put on them in the summer, you have to wonder if one more officer is enough.”
Hartman pointed out the irony of his questioning if adding just one officer was enough.
“I hope you understand the significance of my question,” he said. “This is the only time during the budget process when I ask if we’re spending enough. It really is a concern of mine and I hear you say this is a start, but in the environment we’re in today, I wouldn’t mind adding more if it meant we were doing the proactive thing here.”
Buzzuro reasserted he would like to add multiple officers in a perfect world, but reiterated adding just one this year could meet his needs with a little creativity.
“For me to ask for multiple additional officers isn’t reasonable under the circumstances,” he said. “I believe a consideration for one would be a good start. It’s not a panacea. That’s not going to resolve the issue, but it would help and why we’re at the point we are today.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight pointed out there are often questions raised from the public about maintaining a fully staffed police department in a seasonal resort town and also pointed out how Ocean City is no longer a Memorial Day to Labor Day town.
“We get a lot of comments about what our police officers do during the winter,” she said. “To me, that’s absolutely ridiculous, but I want the public to know that our season now begins on St. Patrick’s Day weekend when it used to start on Memorial Day and it now goes to November with the events and things we have. You now have a season that extends far beyond what we used to have.”
Buzzuro said the shoulder season special events continue to tax his department’s manpower.
“In retrospect looking back at the growth over the years that is true,” he said. “We used to have maybe 50 special events. That number has doubled. It’s now over 100 and that’s not going to be reduced any time soon. If anything, the number of special events will increase.”
City Manager Doug Miller pointed out much of the department’s manpower hours are dedicated to patrol during the summer, leaving the off-season for training.
“During the summer, just about every man-hour is on the street and the Boardwalk,” he said. “They use a lot of the off-season to catch up on their training.”
Mayor Rick Meehan also agreed it was time to consider adding another officer and suggested going beyond that could be considered during the budget wrap-up sessions when all of the figures were in and tough decisions were made.
“I agree with the request and the need for additional officers,” he said. “You use the number 105, but there are times when all 105 are not available for duty. By expanding that number to 106 or 107, that will give us the opportunity to have a full complement of officers at any one time. There are always going to be unusual circumstances, especially in the line of work these officers are in, and things can happen.”
Meehan praised the work done by the department and the town’s crime rate statistics, but questioned if skimping on the number of available officers could end up compromising public safety.
“I do think it’s important you have the full complement of offices available,” he said. “Every time you don’t, it limits your ability to achieve your goals and what we’re looking for you to do.”
Hartman said adding the requested single officer should be considered along with consideration for finding the funding for possibly more officers to offset the losses.
“I think we need to stay ahead of this so we can keep Ocean City the place that it is and the place that we all envision it will continue to be in the future,” he said.
The Mayor and Council decided to revisit the issue during budget wrap-up deliberations.