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Police Union Wants Changes In Off-Duty Moonlighting Program.

NEW CONCOCTIONS bubbling within TPD's highly profitable off-duty program could have taxpayers peeling more potatoes, and off-duty cops making more gravy.

If you'll recall, last summer the department proposed turning it's long-standing off-duty program into a "special duty program." Different name, same game -- with a few exceptions. Used to be the cops simply moonlighted directly with private employers, from shopping malls to big event venues like the Tucson Convention Center. In turn, those employers paid officers directly for their work, to the tune of about $3 million annually.

But as of June 20, TPD started logging cops' off-duty hours and billing outside employers through the department. The goal was to keep closer tabs on such side work. At the same time, the department boosted the rate charged private employers from $17 up to $20 per hour, with the difference covering its added paperwork and in-house, off-duty administrators, in this case Sgt. Eugene Gonzales.

The sergeant is paid $69,000 in wages and benefits to oversee the program, which last summer he described to the Tucson Weekly as "definitely full-time." In addition, he was assigned an assistant who receives $43,000 in wages and benefits.

Under the old program, private employers were also required to hold a minimum $1 million liability policy, theoretically to cover any incidents involving off-duty cops in their hire. That requirement hasn't changed.

Now, however, the TPOA (which brokered the rank-and-file officers' current contract with the city) is squawking. On June 21, the union dispatched outlines for revising the new special duty program. They want to shift a portion of Gonzales' salary away from off-duty earnings since, according to TPOA's report, the sergeant also oversees the Reserve Officer and Police Assist Programs.

"Why should the off-duty work program pay for his full salary, when it's only one-third of his time?" says Richard Anemone, TPOA president. The situation, he adds, has sparked terrible morale problems among officers.

As a remedy, Anemone proposes that the TPD (read: taxpayers) kick in another $11,000 for Gonzales salary, rather than extracting that money from private employers.

Why the shift? Anemone and cops say they're losing off-duty jobs because private employers don't want to foot the extra administrative tab. In addition, the department has started billing officers for liability insurance related to their off-duty work.

Again, Anemone is crying foul. He points to the existing TPOA contract, wherein the city "agrees to defend and hold harmless all employees...against and from all civil claims" which arise "solely out of official performance of duty as a peace officer."

Here's the upshot: Taxpayers can still be left holding the bag if officers mess up -- even while they're doing private work-for-hire.

The concept is that cops are always on the job, even when they're moonlighting.

But let's try a civilian analogy: Say you're a minimum wage, full-time burger flipper who picks up extra cash setting pins in Al's Bowl-O-Rama. (Both common occupations in Tucson's "booming" economy, by the way.) And one night the chain-smoking, belligerent bitty in lane six cusses you for the last time. Thus, you smack her upside the head with her own six-pound, five-fingered Brunswick, send her Marlboro flying into the gutter, and leave her jabbering like a drunken weatherman.

Now, would you expect your burger joint bosses to run out and hire Johnnie L. Cochran to defend your sorry butt, for an incident that occurred in Al's Bowl-O-Rama?

Hardly.

But that's exactly what Tucson citizens are expected to do -- and have done -- when cops inadvertently hurt or even wrongfully arrest folks while working off-duty for private profit.

That's where the TPOA proposal comes in. While the city still covers its cops in all situations, the new program exacts a fee for that coverage from the $20-per-hour charged to employers. This, according to the unions, unfairly jacks-up off-duty rates.

Anemone wants the department to do away with the fee. He says off-duty insurance doesn't cost the city extra money, since the cops are always covered anyhow.

According to TPD guidelines, total costs for that insurance are about 4.8 percent of the hourly rate charged outside employers. That breaks down to about 80 cents per hour subtracted from officers' off-duty earnings. A bit more is gleaned for things like workman's comp, Medicare, etc. -- costs many private employers paid anyway under the old policy.

The union argues that outside employers shouldn't have to bear those burdens. Yet, considering the extra millions such work brings officers each year, not to mention that they use publicly owned TPD equipment -- up to and including police cruisers -- to make extra cash for themselves, somehow it seems only fair that taxpayers should get a break.

But Anemone has the existing TPOA contract on his side. That ultimately makes City Manager Luis Gutierrez responsible for signing such a nefarious deal.

The union has recruited Ward 6 City Councilman Fred Ronstadt, a Republican and nephew of former Police Chief Pete Ronstadt, to carry their water on this one. "Even though the city has taken on this responsibility (to administer off-duty work), there was no increase to the amount the police department was paying for liability insurance," Fred Ronstadt says. "However, the police department is charging off-duty officers for that insurance. So essentially, the off-duty work is subsidizing the Tucson Police Department."

(Well, not exactly. Since the hourly off-duty rate was raised for employers when the new program started, the cops come out about the same as before. Only the taxpayers are getting a slight break.)

But Ronstadt staunchly defends the TPOA position, even while conceding that, contract or not -- and $1 million liability policies notwithstanding -- taxpayers could still be left holding the tab when things go wrong. "I think, in the litigious world we live in, Joe's Oyster Bar, or El Parador, who employs an off-duty police officer, doesn't have deep pockets. But the City of Tucson does."

As for paying Sgt. Gonzales' salary, Ronstadt says the off-duty program shouldn't foot the whole tab. "People who choose to work off-duty, who feel it's a necessity to make ends meet, are subsidizing a city function," he says.

In other words, it's much better for officers when taxpayers subsidize their off-duty profits.

As for making ends meet, no one denies that cops have a tough, nasty, dirty job -- along with plenty of other hard-working folks in Tucson's banana-republic economy. In relative terms, TPD officers don't do so bad. They wield a lot more power than most citizens, and their salaries start at about $30,000 per year, with more benefits than you can shake a night stick at. And that's doesn't include their off-duty wages.

Compare that to Tucson's average income of $21,000, often for crappy, demeaning jobs, and TPOA's buffet of blues starts looking a bit overcooked.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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