City manager refuses to make decision on $1 million police over-hire, sends it to City Commission

Lawrence Police Department

In a letter to the City Commission on Monday, City Manager Tom Markus said he refused when asked last week to unilaterally approve the police department’s request to hire 17 officers over the maximum allowed.

Markus, who has been on the job one week, said the practice the past three years of having the city manager approve the police department’s over-hires — without City Commission input — “should end.” He went on to say he thought the City Commission should limit the over-hires this year to 14, not 17, and never again consider this type of request outside of the regular budget process.

“Knowing …our [police] department believes they are understaffed, in need of more equipment and new expanded facilities, I wanted to be supportive,” Markus wrote. “And yet I am concerned as a manager that this practice of over hire is not, in my opinion, a good management practice except in rare or emergency conditions.”

The letter states that Markus met with Police Chief Tarik Khatib and members of the police department, finance department and management staff on March 23 to discuss the request.

In anticipation for what Khatib called an “unprecedented number of retirements” expected in the next four years, the department wants to hire 19 people this spring to start a nine-month training process and replace the leaving officers. The police department currently has two open positions. The over-hire of 17 officers is estimated to cost between $644,396 and $1,267,061, depending on how many people leave this year and how many qualified applicants are found.

Markus said in the letter he “did not believe I had the authority to approve such a request,” so he had it placed on the City Commission’s agenda for Tuesday, making the information public.

“The City Commission retains authority over public policy, which includes budget approval,” Markus wrote. “Even a temporary over hire can have significant consequences on an already approved budget and as such the decision will rest with the commission.

“As I start my role as city manager, it is critical that I build trust with the commission, community and our employees.”

Markus did include his input in the letter, but the City Commission will have the final say on the matter Tuesday. Among other things, he said over-hire is not common in city government. Approving over-hires outside of the annual budget process “is not a sound budgeting practice” and should only be used “under rare circumstances… in an emergency situation,” he wrote.

Markus is recommending that the City Commission approve 14 over-hires this year, noting Khatib’s concerns about the consequences of not hiring above the 152-person maximum.

In a city memo March 23, Khatib and Capt. Anthony Brixius listed threats to the department if city commissioners were to deny the request, including concerns about officer and public safety, an increase in overtime pay and a cutback in the types of crimes the department investigates.

“Time-intensive minor crimes would be triaged as non-investigatory,” the memo reads. “This may increase minor crimes as repeat offenders would not be identified or prosecuted.”

The memo says there would be a reduction in “community policing” activities and “general public interaction,” which “may lead to community and police falling out of touch.” Police may also have to stop their funeral escort services, leading to the “perception of lack of sympathy on the part of the city.”

Markus is also asking that commissioners direct him to create a plan for how to fill police department vacancies in the future and vote to make future over-hire decisions as part of the regular budget process.

He mentions the main cause of retirements this year — 19 officers hired in 1991 will become retirement eligible this year — saying “we have known this was coming for some time now.”

“Knowing the normal attrition and the potential for a ‘bubble retirement’ should be cause for us to develop a succession plan so that time issues are addressed going forward,” he wrote.

He went on to say that over-committing resources “is not sustainable and may result in more harm than good over the long term.”

“I have found that there are never enough resources to satisfy even the most conservative of department heads,” he said.

The police department has increased its end-strength from 140 in 2003 to 152 today — too little of an addition to keep up with “the increased workload, complexity, technology challenges and community expectations,” Khatib said in his memo.

In 2013 and 2014, the city approved eight over-hires each year. In 2015, 10 over-hires were approved. The memo states the cost of those hires was between $146,730 and $373,098 per year. However, the department didn’t request a separate budget, and so it’s hard to know the true cost, said the city’s finance director, Bryan Kidney.