To avoid the costly insurance and pension benefits that full-time police officers receive, many suburban departments are turning to part-time officers as a way to cut costs.
But the savings may not always pan out.
Among 80 suburban police departments throughout six collar counties, nearly a third employ part-time officers in some capacity. That amounts to almost 150 officers used to fill service and funding gaps. Yet, while the practice enables some towns to realize savings by reducing the number of full-time officers, collective bargaining agreements and the cost of staffing part-time posts prevent many from seeing significant savings overall.
Village leaders in West Dundee authorized three part-time officers last year at a cost of $18,942. But Police Chief Andrew Wieteska's budget this year calls for $74,100 to be spent on part-timers, while overtime is slated to be unchanged at roughly $150,000. Wieteska says he hopes to shave about 30 percent off that amount by the end of the fiscal year, but the village would still pay more for part-time labor than it will realize in overtime savings.
Wieteska believes there are other advantages than big cost savings.
"Part-time police fill a niche," he said. "While our ranks declined in recent years due to budget cuts, our call volume did not see an equivalent reduction."
Other departments also are moving away from identifying savings as the chief motivating factor for hiring part-timers.
Rolling Meadows officials say their plan to hire part-time police officers is more about operational efficiency than dollars.
"They wouldn't be for street use," said Police Chief Dave Scanlan. "They would be engaged in administrative tasks and potentially doing other specialty things in the department to take full-time officers currently performing those duties and putting them back on the street."
Mayor Tom Rooney said he hopes the move will cut down on overtime costs for the department. The city's current budget calls for about $100,000 less in police overtime compared to last year. Rooney said the department has six fewer sworn positions than it did five years ago, but that led to increased overtime costs.
"If you're going to cut back full-time positions, you're going to see an increase in overtime," Rooney said.
One reason adding part-time officers might not curb a police department's overtime costs to the extent most expect is that most collective bargaining agreements require that many additional assignments be offered to full-time officers as overtime before a part-timer can be used.
Of the 22 suburban departments analyzed that use part-time police, 10 budgeted higher overtime costs this year than they had last year, though in some cases they still will see savings. That's the case, for instance, in Lakemoor, where officials anticipate about $6,000 more in police overtime this year even as they are planning to cut part-time costs by about $40,000.
"We've become leaner by necessity to obviously try and cut the budget," said Police Chief William Kushner. "We did some scheduling changes with the full-time officers to make up for that."
Pay varies widely for part-time police officers in the suburbs that use them. On the low end, Villa Park pays some of their part-timers at $13.50 an hour, according to village records. In Grayslake, some of the part-timers can make more than $38 an hour. The average rate is about $20 an hour.
Some part-timers are full-time officers in other departments in the area. Sometimes they are firefighters or paramedics also. In other cases, they are retired from other departments but have experience and expertise in areas that a department might otherwise lack.
"In a department like Warrenville, we have a fairly young corps of police officers," said Warrenville Police Chief Ray Turano. "One of our part-time officers is retired from another department, but he brings a tremendous amount of real-world police experience and acts as a mentor."
None of the police chiefs who employ part-time police said the practice solves all their problems. Scheduling can often be a headache because many of the part-time officers have full-time jobs elsewhere.
"The benefits are that you don't have medical (insurance costs), no vacation or sick time, they'd be covered by workers' comp and there's no pension liabilities either," Turano said.
"But their commitment and availability is not the same as a full-time officer," Wieteska added.
The chiefs suggested municipalities thinking of making the move weigh all the pros and cons, and be conservative in the cost-saving estimates.
"It's not a substitute for a full-time police officer," said Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko. "If you look at part-time policing as simply augmenting to boost manpower during peak times and special events, that's where you'll see the difference in buy-in from the community."