Changes proposed for Pittsburgh's off-duty details

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Pittsburgh public safety director Michael Huss on Monday proposed changes in how the city collects and manages money that businesses and event organizers pay when hiring off-duty police, paramedics and firefighters for special details.

Mr. Huss proposed putting the money in three trust funds -- one for each of the public safety bureaus -- and he would have his office oversee the management of all three. Eventually, he said, revenue and expenses from business-funded details might appear as line items in the city's general fund budget.

He made the proposal at a meeting of nearly 30 police officials and city administrators that Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith convened amid a federal probe of the police bureau.

The investigation deals at least partly with how officials collect and spend money that businesses pay when hiring police officers for security details. Some of that money appears to have been diverted to a Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union account not authorized to receive city money. After the FBI interviewed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in February, the mayor demanded and received Nate Harper's resignation as police chief.

Ms. Kail-Smith, who chairs council's public safety committee, has introduced legislation to create a trust fund for police details. She said she might have to tweak her legislation given Mr. Huss' proposal for tighter controls on revenue generated by all three safety bureaus.

"You can't run this stuff like you manage your checkbook at home," Mr. Huss said. Instead of merely showing money going in and out, he said, the city must distinguish between money that businesses and event planners pay to cover employees' hours and the $3.85 per hour surcharge the city adds.

City officials last week said the surcharge for police bureau details, enacted in 2007, never was properly legislated by council. Council President Darlene Harris has introduced a bill to make the surcharge official.

Mr. Huss confirmed Monday that the surcharge, without having been legislated, also is being added to secondary details worked by paramedics. He said he was not sure whether the surcharge also is added to special details worked by firefighters. He was not immediately able to say how much the surcharge brings in.

Nightclubs, sports teams and construction companies are among the businesses that hire police for details.

Anthony Weinmann, president of the paramedics union, said his members also are hired to work athletic events and special events. He said he didn't how the city administered that money, but Mr. Huss said it flows in and out of a trust fund administered by the EMS bureau.

Mr. Huss and Joe King, president of the firefighters union, said firefighters are offered a small amount of special detail work each year. Mr. Huss said that money is reported as "miscellaneous" revenue in the fire bureau budget.

If council agrees, Mr. Huss said, the varying management processes will give way, at least initially, to a stronger trust fund system. "We want to standardize it for all three bureaus," he said.

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, police union president, said the union believed that the city collected the $3.85 surcharge to pay for damaged uniforms and other expenses incurred through officers' secondary employment. He said it's unclear whether the money ever was used in that way but stressed that the union wants it accounted for in a transparent manner.

Elizabeth Pittinger, who heads the Citizens Police Review Board, said the city should handle secondary employment issues in two steps -- first implement better controls over the fund and then take a comprehensive look at its secondary employment policy, including which businesses may apply for the service.

While acting police Chief Regina McDonald last week barred officers from working at two city strip clubs, Ms. Pittinger said many cities prohibit moonlighting at any business associated with alcohol or gambling or any business in violation of any local, state or federal laws. Many South Side bars and restaurants currently hire officers for security details.

Ms. Kail-Smith said the officials she met with Monday could become a short-term working group as the city wrestles with how to improve police staffing and resolve the controversy surrounding police officers' details.

"We're going to continue to meet," with the next session scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, she said.

Ms. Kail-Smith said she will explore one idea generated at the three-hour inaugural meeting -- hiring retired officers for police bureau clerical jobs so that more active-duty officers can be put on the streets.

Turnover long has been a problem for the police bureau, which loses officers to higher-paying suburban departments that face less crime. The bureau Monday had a uniformed complement of 842, which is 50 below the budgeted strength of 892. The bureau also has 28 recruits in training, bureau spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

In addition to her bill that would create a trust fund for secondary detail revenue, Ms. Kail-Smith has introduced legislation that would require the police bureau to begin hiring when the complement falls below a yet-unspecified number.

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Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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