Roadwork a boon to Washington, and its police officers
Washington police block South College Street at Wheeling Street as workers with Pennsylvania American Water Co. install new water lines.
Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
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The amount of street construction projected this year in Washington could prove to be a economic boon to the city police officers who provide traffic control during the work, and to the city itself.
Under an ordinance enacted in 2009, any contractor or utility doing work on heavily traveled Washington streets is required to contract with the city’s police department for off-duty officers to handle traffic control.
College Street will be rebuilt this summer with new drainage and pavement at a cost of $5 million, and the state Department of Transportation is also planning a project from Murtland to Ridge and Highland avenues. Police also were used last summer during the reconstruction of Lincoln Street.
Under the ordinance, contractors must pay $70 an hour for a minimum of two officers working a minimum of four hours. The fee is split, with the officers receiving $50 an hour and the city retaining $20 for use of the patrol car. The officers sign up for extra duty and must work on their days off. The pay is considered additional duty pay. Officers also may collect overtime those weeks, but the extra duty does not count toward their regular work week.
A check of receipts showed that Columbia Gas paid the city $123,000 between December 2011 and March of this year for police services during work on College Street alone.
“The officers do well by the program, but it has also been a good revenue source for the city,” said Councilman Joseph Manning, noting that before the city received no funds from companies doing work. Manning oversees the city’s accounts and finances department.
A review of police payroll records shows that the amounts officers make for the extra duty varies widely but can be substantial.
For example, in the two-week pay period ending May 4, $10,500 in extra duty pay was paid to 19 officers. The additional pay ran from $75 for one officer to $1,425 for another. Most of the officers’ extra duty pay fell between $250 and $475.
And, while the extra work can be lucrative, it is not consistent. Between June 24 and July 7 there were no additional hours, resulting in no additional duty pay for officers.
In 2011, the city collected a total of $157,855 in special services duty payments and paid out $117,815 to officers, with the remaining $40,040 going into city coffers.
In 2012, revenue exceeded $168,400 with more than $120,300 paid to police and the city depositing $48,140.
Some of the amounts invoiced for special detail payments in 2012 include Columbia Gas Co., $80,727; Golden Triangle Construction Co., $28,350; Donegal Construction Co., $17,185; Rascal Films, $6,411; Pennsylvania American Water, $2,957; Washington & Jefferson College, $2,520; and McKean Plumbing, $350.
So far this year, the city has collected $101,505 and paid about $72,000 to officers, retaining $29,000. With the bulk of construction season yet to come, it is likely the city will exceed its projected revenue of $120,000 in its 2013 budget.
Each August, city officers can sign up for extra work, which runs the gamut from road construction to providing security for Washington High School basketball games or wrestling matches, concerts at Washington & Jefferson College, or for a production company that might be shooting a film in town. Capt. Robert Wilson, acting chief, said 22 of 31 officers take advantage of the opportunity to make additional money, but they do not get to choose their assignments.
That additional duty pay could also benefit officers when they get ready to retire. Under the state’s Third Class City Code, a police officer’s pension is based on his or her last 30 days of employment. The pension is about half of what that officer receives in that last 30 days of pay.
However, under their labor contracts with the city, officers must have 20 years of service and reach a certain age to be eligible for retirement. For some officers, it means 20 years of service and 50 years of age, while for other officers it is 20 years and 52 or 53 years of age.
One officer did retire last year, but there are no other officers eligible for retirement for at least several years, Wilson said, by which time the roadwork will have been completed and the extra duty pay will be much lower. Wilson said he will be the next eligible officer to retire, and he is not planning on doing that for at least another seven years.
Pittsburgh and Washington are the only two Southwestern Pennsylvania municipalities Pennsylvania American Water Co. deals with that require hiring police officers, said Josephine Posti, PAW spokeswoman. Posti noted that in Pittsburgh, officers on construction duty are out of their patrol cars directing traffic, while the Washington officers mostly sit in their vehicles.
Wilson said what officers do in Washington depends on what the contractors want. In some cases, they need to move the cars back and forth to allow equipment access to the job site. However Wilson said he does ask officers to get out of their patrol cars to direct traffic if they see it starting to back up.
Lee Gierczynski, a Verizon spokesman, said unless a municipality has its own ordinances, the company relies on its contractors to provide traffic control during work that affects public roads. Other than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, he was unaware of other municipalities requiring the use of their own police.
The city collects the money and then pays the officers, unlike in Pittsburgh, where payments are made to a special police fund and then remitted to Pittsburgh city accounts. That fund is the focus of a federal investigation and led to the indictment Friday of former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper.
Washington’s ordinance is similar to Pittsburgh’s because it was patterned after it, explained police Lt. David Bradley, who helped draft the law for Washington. The law pertains to major routes through the city but not side streets, with the exception of areas around Washington Hospital or Washington High School.
The ordinance requiring police officers has provided a measure of safety for laborers who work close to moving vehicles, Bradley said, pointing to reconstruction of Jefferson Avenue a few years back that became “a traffic nightmare,” especially at the Wylie Avenue intersection and Interstate 70 ramps.
The number of traffic accidents increased during the street reconstruction, leading officers to look at other alternatives than contractors using their own flaggers.
Other benefits include the city having more of a say about when work is done, said Bradley. He pointed out that city officials were able to require contractors to work after hours on heavily traveled East Maiden Street when traffic was lighter. There also was an incident when a construction employee was injured by a front loader, and police were able to contact 911 and get medical assistance quickly.
Wilson said the system works better because motorists tend to pay attention to a police vehicle and a uniformed officer, and a police officer has the ability to issue a citation if a motorist disobeys a barrier.
But not everyone believes that.
“Traffic detail is a lot more complex than a lot of people think it is,” Posti said. “It requires diligence and being attentive. In the case of using flaggers, it requires constant communication between them, equipment to notify vehicles before they get close to the job site, and to be very visible.”