Syracuse mayor seeks to replace police officers at airport with private security to save money
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011, 6:01 AM Updated: Thursday, January 27, 2011, 8:51 AM
By Tim Knauss / The Post-Standard
View full sizeDick Blume / The Post Standard
Syracuse Police Officer Mark Werbeck talks to a person who had driven through a stop sign at Hancock International Airport.
Syracuse, NY — To lure more airlines and cheaper fares to Syracuse, Mayor Stephanie Miner is scrapping a longstanding practice of paying city police officers overtime to work airport security and is seeking a private contractor to replace most of the cops.
Miner risks the ire of the city police union — it has already vowed to try to block the move — but the mayor said $3.1 million a year in police overtime at the airport is hurting efforts to attract low-cost airlines. “I understand the union’s position. They don’t want to give this up because it’s very lucrative,” Miner said.
But airport security costs, most of which are borne by airlines, contribute to high air fares, she said. “That’s one of the reasons our air fares are higher than our neighboring airports,” she said.
Miner plans to announce the airport security effort this evening in her State of the City Address. It is one of several initiatives she will promote as part of an overall effort to “use innovation to change the culture of government,” she said.
Miner said the city must innovate in some cases because of fiscal constraints, in others because it improves efficiency. Privatizing airport security would meet both goals, she said.
Airport officials invited eight security companies in late December to submit proposals to provide security at Syracuse Hancock International Airport. The proposals are due Friday.
The Syracuse Police Benevolent Association is preparing to file an improper labor practice charge with the state Public Employment Relations Board, said Jeff Piedmonte, union president. Piedmonte said police officers have always provided security at the airport, and any change to that practice should be negotiated as part of a new union contract. The city’s police contract expired Dec. 31.
“Those are our positions and they should continue to be our positions,” Piedmonte said. “If the city wants to change, that’s something that needs to be negotiated.”
Some other Upstate cities also pay police or sheriff’s deputies to work security details at airports, but they typically pay them regular wages, not overtime.
Security costs at the Syracuse airport run about $3.7 million a year, of which $3.1 million is overtime, said Christina Reale, interim aviation commissioner. By comparison, the Albany airport spends $2 million on security and the Rochester airport spends $2.8 million.
The federal Transportation Security Administration covers some security costs, but the lion’s share is paid by airlines. In August, representatives of six airlines wrote to Miner complaining about the costs.
View full sizeDick Blume / The Post Standard
To lure more airlines and cheaper fares to Syracuse, Mayor Stephanie Miner is scrapping a longstanding practice of paying city police officers overtime to work airport security and is seeking a private contractor to replace most of the cops.
They said security in Syracuse cost them $2.68 per passenger in 2008, compared with $1.64 in Rochester, $1.41 in Albany, and as little as 67 cents in Portland, Maine. The airlines also pointed out that Syracuse security costs rose more than 25 percent from 2007 to 2009, despite a 13 percent decline in passengers. “We encourage the city of Syracuse to better control these airport-related costs in the interest of retaining the current air service and, as economies improve, (to) eventually expand,” they wrote.
Miner said she initially offered the police union a compromise: Officers working overtime could keep 40 percent of the airport security details, which total about 1,200 hours a week; the remaining 60 percent would be given to retired police officers hired at straight-time pay. Miner said PBA officials rejected that deal in November, saying they would file improper labor charges over it. That’s when she decided to seek private bids for the security operation, she said.
But Piedmonte said union officials were kept largely in the dark. Piedmonte said police Chief Frank Fowler mentioned the 60-40 compromise to him, but city lawyers never gave the union details on how it would work. Union officials did not reject the idea, but insisted that it would have to be incorporated into contract negotiations, he said. City lawyers responded that “we are going to do this with or without you,” Piedmonte said.
Piedmonte said he did not learn that the city had requested private proposals until Miner told him Wednesday. If the union’s petition to the Public Employment Relations Board is upheld, the city will have to negotiate the change.
More than 100 police officers work overtime at the airport, Piedmonte said. The average cost — including salary, pension costs and Social Security taxes — is $63 an hour, said Reale, the airport commissioner.
The city is seeking a private contractor to provide armed and unarmed officers. Any private security firm would have to meet federal standards and be approved by the TSA before it could work at the airport, Reale said. The private contractor would not replace the passenger and baggage screeners who work for the TSA.
The federal agency will continue to reimburse the airport for a small number of police officers — about four — to staff checkpoints, Reale said. All other positions could go to a contractor.
City Auditor Phil LaTessa, a frequent critic of the city’s overtime costs, said airport security work accounts for about one-third of the overtime hours worked by police officers. He estimated the city spent nearly $10 million for police overtime in 2010, based on pay records for the first half of the year. Some 87 officers were expected to boost their salaries above $100,000 with overtime last year, LaTessa said.
He lauded Miner’s effort to seek private security at the airport. “I have driven people to Rochester’s airport” because of cheaper flights there, LaTessa said. “That’s a big problem.”
Contact Tim Knauss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 470-3023.
© 2011 syracuse.com. All rights reserved.
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