Act 47 leads to officers’ exodus

As the City of Altoona settles in to doing business under Act 47, the changes that came with the distressed city status has spurred an exodus among veteran officers of the Altoona Police Department, with five officers retiring already as of Saturday.

“I just received another retirement letter today that will be effective May 10,” Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling said on Thursday.

Make that six officers.

“That will put us at 60 [officers],” Freehling said, noting that two years ago the police department was budgeted for 73 officers. The year before it was 74 officers. “We’ll have 14 fewer officers. It makes scheduling difficult.”

The majority of retirements are supervisors. According to the Act 47 plan, 12 officers between 2012 and 2013 were eligible to retire, including Deputy Police Chief Robert Seymore, whose position was cut by the restructuring.

“We have years of experience leaving through the door,” she said.

Freehling said until officers turn in written notice, it’s not possible to gauge how many officers will leave. A dozen would represent 18 percent of the force.

Those staffing challenges mean more overtime to ensure the department has the necessary manpower on the street, with Freehling saying the priority is the safety of the public.

“My concern is we’re really not into the vacation period yet,” the chief said. “As far as the number of officers, I’d like to be back to 74, but I know that’s not going to happen.”

In 2012, the department was budgeted for 70 officers and had only 67 positions filled. Under Act 47, the department will have to make do with 66.

At the beginning of the year, for the first time ever, APD conducted civil service testing for applicants that were already Act 120 certified, meaning candidates who already attended a police academy and received their credentials to be a police officer.

Freehling said background checks for the 15 who passed, of 17 who took the test, are under way and she’s hopeful to bring four or five new officers into the fold next month.

“Right now, we’re looking at hiring six [officers]” Freehling said.

As the officers leave, it takes away from the pool of available officers, and even after the new officers come on board, there’s still an 18- to 20-week field training program. Freehling said, however, by only accepting Act 120 certified applicants it’s likely that time will be lessened.

Former APD officer Sam McClure, 45, retired Feb. 3 after 20 years and 9 months on the force and joined the Blair County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. His reason?

“Act 47,” McClure said bluntly.

What worried officers such as McClure so much about Act 47 was the uncertainty of future police contracts, particularly with benefits and retirement. With the police contract expiring at the end of 2013, McClure said he had to ultimately do what was best for his family and retire.

McClure said as of now, officers with 20 years can retire before the age of 50. After this year, when the contract is up, that probably won’t be the case. There has been talk it could increase to 25 years of service and a minimum age of 55, he added.

Mark Martino, 46, who retired in July 2012 and also works as a Blair County Sheriff’s Department deputy, said he saw what was coming and weighed the unknowns against what he knew he had if he retired early. After 18 1/2 years, plus credit for his military service in the Marines Corps, Martino said he would still be an officer had it not been for Act 47.

“It didn’t look good – what we were going to lose,” said Martino.

Because APD officers who retire after 20 years get 50 percent of their base pay, unlike state workers who can get up to 75 percent or teachers who can get up to 80 percent, it’s not like those who are retiring are done working.

Martino said a patrolman after nearly 20 years has a base pay of $56,000. Half of that, Martino pointed out, isn’t making the officers who retire rich.

“That’s why we’re out here [working],” Martino said. “It’s not because we’re greedy.”

The uncertainty of what Act 47 will bring has officers retiring at a brisk pace, but it was nothing like the scene in December when the union’s pension board called an emergency meeting to discuss council’s impending vote to enter into Act 47.

“Nineteen officers showed up with retirement letters,” recalled McClure, who was a member of the union’s pension board.

At the time, the officers didn’t know if entering into Act 47 would negate their contract, but even after they learned it wouldn’t, officers knew that after 2013, any new contract would likely mean more years of service to earn fewer benefits and a smaller pension.

“We don’t pay into Social Security,” McClure said, adding that their retirement pay is also subject to federal taxes, on average around $300 a month. “Our pension is all we get.”

Since no officer’s pension can exceed half of the chief’s salary, should the chief’s position be subject to a lower salary, the pensions for the rest of the officers would be impacted, McClure said.

Martino said that because APD officers consistently took lower pay increases to keep better benefits, their pay is about 11 percent less than officers in other cities of similar size.

“I didn’t want to leave when I did,” McClure said, recounting it was a difficult moment when he tried to find the words to tell Freehling he was leaving. “I would have worked another 15 years.”

But with one child in college, another in high school and a third in elementary school, McClure said in the end it wasn’t in his best interest to stay. As a corporal in charge of crime scene investigations and evidence, McClure would have also been made a detective under Act 47.

Along with the financial outlook, it was best to retire, he said.

The former officers said when they began at APD in the 1990s, they were surrounded by experienced officers who taught them the ropes, something they fear younger officers at APD will miss out on as the veteran cops make their exit this year.

“There’s 100 to 200 years of service walking out the door,” McClure said. “By the end of May.”

Martino recalled starting with guys on his shift that had a combined 135 years of police experience.

“I learned a lot,” Martino said.

Martino said he misses the job and the people he worked with.

“You just miss being out on the street,” he said. “I loved being out on the street – you never knew what you were going to get.”

Still, neither would discourage young officers from wanting to work at APD, at one time a desirable department to get a job with, they said.

And the officers still at APD are dedicated to their profession, with plenty of experienced cops still working the streets, McClure said.

“You spend eight hours a day or more at work with these people,” McClure said. “We have a brotherhood and a sisterhood – the strongest you could ever find.”

Over the coming years, Altoona will find out what fewer officers on the street will mean for crime numbers, which after a spike in 2011 saw a dip in 2012. That information is from the Act 47 plan that suggests the restructuring will save nearly $500,000 for the city over the next four years – $262,000 alone just by keeping the force at 66 officers.

With 29,000 calls for police a year in Altoona, it will mean fewer cops tackling the same amount of work. When Freehling started as an officer in 1976, the department had 99 officers, and while the city is smaller now than then, the number of calls for police has gone up.

“One area of impact is our directed patrol,” said Freehling. When created, the patrol included five officers and has now shrunk to two officers and a supervisor. It’s a patrol the administration could use to focus on problem neighborhoods, getting officers out on the streets to interact with people and give APD a presence where it was needed most.

“Visibility is important,” Freehling said. “We try to get as much visibility out there as we can.”

Freehling echoed the former officers’ sentiments about the value of experience, saying while APD faces some challenges with staffing over the next few years, she’s confident of the abilities of the officers to adapt and get the job done.

“They’re young,” Freehling said. “But, they’re intelligent. They learn; they try. It will work out.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.