Published in the Herald News, Thursday, September 7, 2006
Cops' off-duty work at risk
By CRISTIAN SALAZAR
PATERSON -- When not on duty, Paterson police officers can be seen in uniform working security at McDonald's or local banks, patrolling the halls of public schools or manning gates at housing developments.
For some of the lowest-paid police officers, these off-duty jobs can help them to pay for mortgages, rent, groceries or gas, according to the city's police unions.
But police officers may lose some of this off-duty work, the unions said Wednesday, now that the city has taken over administration of the jobs. Beginning Sept. 1, the city began charging $5 per hour to cover administrative expenses. Officers will no longer be paid directly by businesses – instead, the city will pay them from money collected from employers before the work is done and held in escrow accounts.
The fees and escrow account requirements were established by city ordinance in late May.
Employers of off-duty police officers, such as Paterson's public schools, expressed concern that they would not be able to pay money into the escrow accounts by Sept. 1 or could not afford the increased fees.
The district used to hire 26 police officers, with one working part time. Now, it has cut back to 22 full-time officers and one part-timer, said James Smith, a retired Paterson Police captain who is now executive director for school safety.
"It was a result of the city raising the rate by $5," he said Wednesday. Instead, the district will be using increased video surveillance and redeploying police officers throughout the schools to make up for the cuts, he said.
The city has waived the escrow account requirement for the district, Smith said. "If they had gone with the escrow account, the money would have been too much for us."
The Paterson Parking Authority, which sometimes hires off-duty police officers to guard its lots, has not yet decided whether to continue the practice.
"We are aware of the ordinance," said Robert Rosenberg, general counsel for the authority. "And we have not had the opportunity to discuss it."
Steve Olimpio, president of the Paterson chapter of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said that last week the police unions took their concerns about the escrow accounts to Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres, who agreed to waive them until Oct. 1.
"I had to go and meet with every person who has a contract with us and tell them to get on board," Olimpio said. "I can't blame them, because this was shoved down their throat."
He said that most of the 30 to 35 businesses that hire off-duty officers came back on after his efforts.
Torres said the city had no choice but to take over administration of the off-duty jobs because of a directive from the state Attorney General's Office in the late 1990s that made it a requirement.
"We're probably the only police department of our size that has not adhered to the ruling," he said Wednesday in a phone interview.
The $5 administrative fee is necessary to cover the costs of payroll, bookkeeping and insurance, he said. "If they get sued for moonlighting, the city is responsible," he said.
The escrow account is also needed to assure that the money is in the city's coffers when payroll issues checks, Torres said. He compared it to a renter putting down a security deposit on an apartment. "They got to ensure that the money is in the bank when they are paying the officer," he said. "And that is the issue."
Torres said he didn't think the increased fees or escrow accounts would deter businesses substantially from hiring off-duty police officers.
"(The police unions) just don't like that they have to be accountable to somebody now," he said.
Olimpio agreed that the process of how off-duty work was paid has not always been transparent – even to him. "Some guys got extra," he said. "The way it worked before – a lot of stuff was grandfathered in."
Second Ward Councilman Aslon Goow, who is also on the public safety committee and voted for the ordinance that established the escrow accounts, said they were a concern.
"I don't think the vendors that they will be doing business with will pony up for an escrow account," he said.
Reach Cristian Salazar at 973-569-7165 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.