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Town manager defends police staffing in Amherst

AMHERST — Town Manager John Musante said he would increase the number of police officers in town if the municipal budget could handle the extra expense, and points to the fact that staffing has held firm as evidence of his commitment to the department.

“If resources are available, public safety staffing is a priority,” Musante said in an interview Tuesday.

His comments came a day after the Amherst Police Supervisors Union issued a statement saying town officials have long ignored its calls to add staff.

Since fiscal year 2010, the department’s staffing has held at 45 police officers, whereas town government has lost about 20 positions, or 10 percent of its workforce, Musante said.

But Sgt. Gabriel Ting, president of the 13-member supervisors union, said maintaining the status quo is no longer adequate and the union wants a definitive plan to correct what it sees as an insufficient numbers of officers.

“Every year it’s the same thing, but the climate, in our opinion, has changed,” Ting said.

While the union acknowledges that Musante has outlined a plan to use savings from a proposed regional dispatch with Hadley and Pelham to hire a new police officer, Ting said more is needed.

“We could use more help than one officer,” Ting said. “You could add 10 officers and we would be able to keep them busy.”

Ting points to area communities for comparison, including Northampton with 62 officers, Westfield with 70 and West Springfield with 90.

He added that the union is frustrated that no intermediate or long-term plan has been proposed and that the union has not been able to arrange a meeting with the town manager to discuss the issue.

But Musante said he has repeatedly informed the police union that he would add staff if money is available, as history has shown.

“We went up when money was there, we went down when money wasn’t there,” Musante said.

In 1997 the police force had 41 officers paid through the town budget, which rose to 50 by 2005. In 2008, at the beginning of recession, the department had 48 officers, and two years later the number was down to the current 45.

“The basic point is in the late 1990s we were at 41, and over a period of eight years, peaking in FY05, we went up 25 percent in staffing,” Musante said.

A staffing analysis needs to be done to determine how to add officers if resources are available, Musante said. He would not say what he thinks is an ideal number of officers, adding that it is complicated.

The town, he said, benefits from a collaborative partnership with UMass police and state police.

“We’re continually looking for ways to build upon that partnership in mutually beneficial ways,” Musante said.

Ting said the public should be aware that delays in service and safety issues could result from the staff being stretched thin. During March’s Blarney Blowout, the pre-St. Partrick’s Day celebration in town, police were working to control the rowdy crowds that amassed near UMass, resulting in no officers being available to respond to a reported break-in on Hallock Street.

“We want the public to understand that at times services will be delayed,” Ting said.

“With the school year just around the corner, we felt it was appropriate to allow the public to be aware of where we stand in terms of our staffing issues,” he said, pointing out that the town’s population doubles with the return of students to UMass as well as Amherst and Hampshire colleges.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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