Jersey City Council members concerned that police department has overspent $400k on OT in 2019

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The Jersey City Council approved a nearly $599 million budget last week, which included $6.5 million for police overtime, though several members of the governing body said that number has already been exceeded by about $400,000.

In 2017, the city council voted on a budget that allocated approximately $8.4 million in police overtime, and the council voted for roughly the same amount in the 2018 budget, but the total amount spent on overtime came to $14.6 million: $6 million more than what was budgeted for last year.

At last week’s council hearing, Ward D Councilman Michael Yun and Council President Rolando Lavarro led the charge in questioning Business Administrator Brian Platt why and how there’s been an overspend in police overtime by $6 million in 2018, and over $400,000 to date in 2019.

“As you know, Jersey City has recently hired new officers [bringing the total force to 945 officers] and when more police officers are hired, there should be a reduction in overtime. But, instead, we’ve been increasing overtime. That’s a concern,” Yun said.

He then asked Platt who gave the authorization to spend that much money on overtime.

Before he could answer, Lavarro asked Platt if he had a breakdown of that money, but Platt answered that he didn’t have it in front of him “and that they could provide a report at some point, we just have to put those numbers together.”

Platt then returned to Yun’s question about who authorized the overspending on overtime.

“It’s worth another conversation with the Police Chief [Michael Kelly] and Public Safety Director [James Shea] to talk about exactly what overtime is used for and the purpose of it, but also the results of it. As you’ll notice over the last few years, crime has gone down significantly, we’ve got a very firm grasp on a lot of the pockets of violence and things have come down over time,” said Platt.

Lavarro followed up after Yun’s questioning, reminding the business administrator that the council had requested information on the breakdown of police overtime during budget hearings last year.

He explained that if the overtime was spent on police posts inside the five areas of the city that have had high violence rates that required a 24/7 hour police presence, then he would certainly have seconded the motion for that expenditure, but, nonetheless, he said that the city was still yet to provide that information.

Platt apologized and said he would provide a report on the breakdown by the council’s next caucus meeting, which was today. According to Lavarro, that report was still yet to be provided.

Lavarro then asked Platt if he personally monitors the spend down on the overtime, which Platt said the administration has been auditing every department, not just the police department.

“We noticed in the last budget year that it was high and it was concerning. Frankly, not enough controls and oversight were in place. But we now have a new overtime policy, and there are certain departments where every minute of overtime goes through me because we’re trying to keep a tight watch on the budget,” said Platt.

Lavarro followed up with Platt to ask him if he’s seen any “irregularities” as it pertains to police overtime.

“I will say that since we started regularly discussing this the average weekly use of overtime has gone down, I’ll say that,” said Platt.

That response caused the council president to chuckle and commend Platt for a very clever answer.

“And when would that be, you said when we started discussing this?,” Lavarro asked while still enjoying a laugh.

“I can’t remember, [I think] it was in late winter or the beginning of this year, when we started going through this budget cycle we knew that overtime was going to be an issue,” Platt said.

We interviewed Lavarro after last week’s August 5th council meeting to ask him about his concerns about police overtime spending.

“What was already introduced in the budget and approved today [August 5] it appears that we’ve already overspent that budget seven months into the year, so on that basis alone approving a budget that’s already overspent in one particular area of the budget probably is not prudent at best,” said Lavarro.

Lavarro reiterated in the interview that he was hoping to have a “more robust conversation” on police overtime at today’s council caucus, but that didn’t happen.

When Yun, Lavarro and Ward E Councilman James Solomon asked Shea about whether he had the overtime numbers broken down, he said he didn’t have that information with him.

Yun first brought up that there should’ve been more oversight on the overtime spending in 2018, but Platt intervened to say that it’s a lot of work and that “they are working on that.”

“There’s another component to this, also. So there’s a gross spend of overtime, and then  there are credits and reimbursements. So if we’re [Public Safety] doing overtime for the Housing Authority, they reimburse us for a portion of that.

“It’s a changing number that goes up and down, it’s not just a straight number,” said Platt.

Shea expressed frustration with the council, asking them when there are “off topic” questions to email him in advance so that he can provide answers.

“I’m not saying this because I don’t wan’t to answer questions, but if anything off topic is coming up if you could give me a heads up I’ll have all these answers for you because I don’t want to come down here and not have the information you want,” Shea began.

“So anyone can email me to say that when you come down about this I’ll try to have that information.'”

Lavarro quickly responded that the council had requested information and a breakdown of police overtime at last week’s special council meeting time in order to have a discussion about it at their caucus meeting this morning.

“I’m not pointing fingers, but I’m just saying that we requested that information,” said Lavarro.

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