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Anticipating $1M in unused sick and vacation payouts, Southold police chief requests big spending hike

Citing a shortage in manpower and anticipated turnover in the upper ranks of his department, Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley has requested a $1 million increase in town police spending for 2021. 

The budget request, which was sent to Town Supervisor Scott Russell late last week and is publicly available online, includes nearly $1 million to pay out unused sick and vacation time to retiring officers. The chief wrote that the 48-member department, which is already down two sergeants and saw three officers retire this year, is anticipating that a detective sergeant, two lieutenants and possibly its captain will also retire in 2021.

“If all of these retirements do take place, it will set up our department with a completely new command staff,” the chief wrote. 

“Our department will most likely be going through some very dramatic changes.”

In an effort to fill the expected personnel gap, Chief Flatley is requesting the hiring of five new police officers next year, which he also proposed to the Town Board in person Tuesday.

The chief said the moves come at a particularly strenuous time for the department as it has begun the process of receiving accreditation and is also managing a population boom brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, with formerly part-time or new residents leaving New York City and other areas for the East End. All police departments in New York State must also offer a reform and reinvention proposal by April 2021 under an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the budget process for next year is still in its infancy. Department heads, like Chief Flatley, have only now begun to submit their requests. The supervisor will soon meet with them to review their proposals before he submits his preliminary budget to the Town Board in the fall. There are always cuts to what is proposed, Mr. Russell said.

“Of course any department is going to say that [they need more money],” the supervisor said.

Still, town records show the requested budget increase from just over $8.9 million to about $9.9 million is historically significant. It amounts to about a 10.7% increase in police spending over the current year. The largest actual increase in police spending over the past five years came in 2015, when department expenses grew by about $367,000 over the prior year, which was actually slightly more than the chief had requested the previous summer. By comparison, this year’s requested hike is more than three times the increase the chief asked for in the 2015 budget process.

Mr. Russell said hiring police officers is more complicated than most other town positions because the need must be identified in advance and new recruits need to be hired, undergo mandatory evaluations and complete the academy before they can start. This forces the town to anticipate change and plan for it far in advance. Chief Flatley said the entire process of adding new recruits takes about 18 months.

A Southold police car parked at the end of Nassau Point Road in Cutchogue for a water rescue last month. (Credit: Steve Wick)

Because of this, officers submit an intent to retire prior to the budget process beginning and then the town supervisor said he and the chief take a closer look at each position to see if they should in fact budget for that person’s retirement. 

“We haven’t yet sat down and looked at it line by line,” the supervisor said of this year’s budget request.

When they do, they’ll also be looking at a significant increase from the current year in sick and vacation time payouts for active officers. The total amount of requested funds for sick and vacation time payouts for police officers — both retiring and active duty — is more than $1.88 million, according to the request submitted to Mr. Russell. That’s up from about $500,000 in the current year.

While it’s possible not every officer who submitted an intent to retire and not every requested new officer will be hired, Chief Flatley underscored the strain on his department in his memo to the supervisor and an emailed comment to a reporter. He said “April’s exodus from New York City has added more traffic to our streets along with pedestrians and bicyclists.” As a result, the department has had to deploy more ATV and foot patrols than in the past and regular beach patrols have also been added to address constituent complaints.

He also had to redeploy one of his sergeants to oversee the accreditation process, which came at the request of the Town Board. Years in the making, but finally initiated in 2019, it is expected that the process will add a level of transparency to department operations. Southold is the only town in Suffolk County that is not accredited through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The process will likely add even more expenses not included in the 2021 budget request but outlined in the chief’s memo, such as a capital request for office space for the accreditation program. In his memo, Chief Flatley listed a dozen capital improvement needs for police headquarters, including a larger detention cell to allow for an attendant to watch prisoners and a system for recording interrogations. The chief said the department is not currently in compliance with DCJS mandates in these two areas. 

“Our building is over 45 years old and has not been modernized or physically changed during this period, although the needs for police departments today are drastically different from what they were when our building was built,” the chief wrote.

The chief said a line for accreditation will need to be added to the budget and that an increase in spending for training will also be necessary.

Councilman Jim Dinizio, the Town Board liaison to the Police Advisory Committee, has advocated for accreditation for six years. He believes it will give the town more oversight of the department and open up more frequent lines of communication between police and the Town Board. 

Mr. Dinizio said he urged the chief to “give us the candy store,” so the board has a full picture of the department’s capital improvement needs moving forward.

“I said ‘You gotta beef that thing up and we’ll take it from there,’ ” the councilman said.He agreed it’s too early in the budget process to say how spending will be prioritized.