Some businesses OK with fee for off-duty Pittsburgh police
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The Steelers are happy to pay the police who work Heinz Field on game days, their facility director said Wednesday, but object to the $3.85 an hour that the city of Pittsburgh charges for overhead -- a charge that city council is poised to write into law following controversy about how payments for officers' moonlighting are handled.
"We have no understanding at all of the $3.85," said Jimmie Sacco, director of operations at Heinz Field, which is run by Steelers subsidiary PSSI Stadium Corp. "I wish we had more justification for it. ... We'd like to know what that's used for and why we are being charged that.
"I don't think it should be anything at all."
He said city leaders have yet to reach out to his firm, which hires as many as 50 off-duty police to work each Steelers home game. He declined to say how much his firm pays for police service around Heinz Field.
A list of bills placed online by Councilman Patrick Dowd includes nearly $470,000 in charges for police presence at and around Heinz Field and for the Steelers, including more than $38,000 in city administrative fees. The charges also included some fees for police vehicle use.
"We'd like to be part of the process," Mr. Sacco said. "We'd be more than glad to work with the administration and council members on getting this system where it needs to be."
Council on Wednesday postponed for a week a first vote on legislation that would write into law the $3.85 add-on that the city has, for the last six years, charged when private entities hire off-duty police. The fee is placed on top of the officers' compensation, which is now $42.85 an hour.
Council President Darlene Harris, who sponsored the legislation to codify the fee, said her bill would leave it at $3.85 because she wanted to defer to the police bureau, whose policy on secondary detail spells out the rate. But she said she would consider raising it to 10 percent of the current overtime rate if the bureau desired it. That would be $4.28.
Alco Parking president Merrill Stabile, whose firm hires city police to help keep order during large North Shore events, didn't object to the current fee, but balked at talk of any increase.
"I don't think there should be any discussion on increasing it when they don't seem to know what it's used for," Mr. Stabile said. "If somebody got greedy and tried to bump that up above $3.85, we would take issue with that."
Ms. Harris said she first sought a fee in 2007, after the city paid out $200,000 to Florida resident Deven W. Werling to settle a police brutality case involving an off-duty officer providing security at the Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland.
Police Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said the rate of $3.85 was originally set because it represented 10 percent of an officer's overtime pay rate in 2005. It was created both to cover various expenses related to secondary employment -- litigation and worker's compensation claims, for example -- and because fiscal overseers urged the city to find new sources of revenue. The fee would also cover overtime should an officer have to appear in court for an arrest made while off-duty.
Businesses that require the officers they hire to drive a police vehicle -- to block a street, for example -- are also billed for the vehicle rental. And if an officer's equipment is damaged while he is working a side job, the business is billed for that, too.
Deputy Chief Donaldson said the bureau has done no accounting for the cost the city incurs by having officers working side jobs -- tabulating lawsuit settlements and worker's compensation claims, for example. So it's unclear if the nearly $800,000 generated by the fee is actually covering those expenses, or exceeds them.
"It's really hard to quantify something like that," he said. But, he added, there's public safety value in having officers working security details. "We realize that any time you have an officer out there in uniform ... it's proactive policing."
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. proposes the fee should also be used to pay for police supervisors to oversee the officers working security detail on East Carson Street. He outlined his idea in a letter to the council president Wednesday.
City solicitor Dan Regan said there's only been one payout for a lawsuit stemming from an officer working a security detail in the last five years. In 2010, Danielle Fortunato received a $15,000 settlement after she claimed an off-duty officer working security manhandled her when removing her from a Station Square club in 2009.
At least one other civil suit involving officers working security detail is pending against the city. Lena Davenport, who was shot by off-duty officers while riding in the front seat of a car being chased by police on East Carson Street, sued the officers in federal court Feb. 15.
The fee has come under renewed scrutiny since allegations emerged that some funds sent in to pay for the services of off-duty police were diverted into an account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, which was not authorized to receive city money. From there, the funds were used to pay for police equipment, but also for meals and travel, according to documents obtained by the Post-Gazette.
Last month the FBI took documents from police headquarters and the credit union. Agents interviewed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who promptly demanded, and got, the resignation of police Chief Nate Harper.
"Obviously, we want the money to go where it's supposed to go," said Mr. Stabile. He said he's also happy with the officers' service, and is happy to pay them, but noted that his firm pays a lot of parking taxes to the city, some of which should cover public safety costs.
Though the fee has been in place for six years, it has never been made part of the city code, raising concerns about its legality. Mr. Regan said charging a fee not contained in city code does "not necessarily" expose the city to lawsuits.
"We're going to review the matter and determine whether there are any issues with charging the fee," he said.
Some of the system's major customers are bar owners, and those reached Wednesday didn't object to the current arrangement.
Mike Papariella, owner of Casey's Draft House on the South Side and president of South Side Bar and Restaurant Association, said he was under the impression that it was for wear-and-tear on vehicles and equipment. But last spring, in meetings with police administration, they clarified it was for worker's compensation and court overtime and told them the money went into "a general fund."
"It seemed like a reasonable thing to pay that fee," he said. His establishment was billed nearly $1,500 in fees last year, according to the invoices posted to Mr. Dowd's website.
"They do a wonderful job," said "Big" Steve Feltovich, a manager at Diesel Club Lounge, on the South Side. "Our details are on time, they make the arrests when necessary, and they do an amazing job.
"The city of Pittsburgh police are absolutely worth their weight in gold."
"I'm absolutely fine with what we pay to the city," said Megan Pastorius, of The Boulevard Lounge, in Brookline. "We brought [police] in, we have no problems, no fights, no problem with people not wanting to leave at night."
"That's one thing -- the staff that works both the traffic detail, inside and outside details, they do a terrific job," Mr. Sacco said.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:00 am