Council Finally Nails Down Uniform Reimbursement Policy
The City of Stevens Point Courthouse. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
City leaders have finally come to an agreement over an unclear city policy which some say micromanages uniform purchases for administrative assistants.
In April, the city’s Personnel Committee was tasked with deciding a reimbursement request from Lorna Whalen, an administrative assistant with the Stevens Point Fire Department, for the amount she spent on uniform items she’s required to wear while on duty. Whalen, along with former Fire Chief Tracey Kujawa, said the reimbursement was customary given Whalen’s official duties over the past 19 years, which involve dealing with large public groups, including tour groups and visitors from area schools, by herself.
Whalen said she submitted her reimbursement form as usual for the $239.44 she paid for uniform pants, a belt, shoes and socks, all of which are part of the required uniform at the SPFD. But her reimbursement process hit a snag when city leaders began to question paying for her socks, belt and other items.
“You can go to any department store in Stevens Point and get navy blue pants,” said Alderman Randy Stroik.
Others on the Council agreed, but were more concerned that the matter was being brought to the Council at all, eventually agreeing once a budget is approved for fire and police departments, those budgets should be carried out by department heads with little-to-no Council involvement with the exception of an unforeseen emergency expense.
“We’ve empowered our police chief to manage a $6 million budget, our fire chief has roughly a $5 million budget, and yet we’ve spent numerous, numerous hours over the past couple of months debating $250 or $300,” said Alderman Roger Trzebiatowski. “They should have complete control of their budget, plain and simple. If their secretary needs two shirts, they should do it. We shouldn’t even be part of it; it just seems like a very ludicrous discussion we’ve had.”
The Personnel Committee in early June faced the option of changing the unclear language within the city’s policy, but instead opted to forward the matter to the full Council without any recommendation because half of the committee’s voting body said the policy should be removed from the city’s administrative code altogether- something the full Council agreed to on June 17.
Tony Patton, an alderman who serves as the Council’s liaison to the Police & Fire Commission, said the old policy micromanaged purchasing decisions of the police and fire chiefs.
“A lot of talk (on the Commission) surrounded the fact that we’re limiting the employees to two shirts instead of letting the directors have a budget and maintain that budget within the guidelines,” Patton said. He argued the city-wide policy, which allowed for two shirts and one badge annually, wasn’t appropriate.
“A badge lasts about 30 years, and maybe somebody would want to buy four shirts with their (uniform) allotment. We were hoping we could change that language to reflect the standard purchase of uniform items,” he added.
Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder said the city-wide policy was put into effect because of “poor decision-making” of past police and fire chiefs, and though he doesn’t require his administrative assistants to wear uniforms like the fire department does, he said the Council shouldn’t micromanage line items of his department’s budget.
“We have a budget allotment for uniforms- I could look at the budget and if I knew the following year would be a bad year for budgetary purposes; I could plan for the future and buy enough shirts to last a number of years,” Ruder told the Council. “This isn’t a great comparable, but when I ask for a budget for ammunition, I don’t expect you guys to say, ‘You should be 12,000 bullets, not 11,850’. You give me the responsibility and discretion to use that budget as I feel is appropriate. The chiefs should have the ability to make their staff look professional, at the same time using good discretion at the beginning of the year to let you know what we intend to use it for.”
Ruder also suggested the Council could create uniform budget line item for the fire and police department budgets beginning with the 2015 budget process.
“Then you can question the chief at the beginning of the year just like any line item,” Ruder added. “Give me the chance to explain my decision, and if you don’t agree, cut my budget.”
The Council agreed, along with Mayor Andrew Halverson.
“It seems inconsequential because we’re talking about uniform shirts which add up to nothing,” Halverson said. “But I think there’s a very real question as to whether you have the authority to tell the chief whether he can buy one or two shirts or not, regardless of the administrative policy adopted by the Council. That’s really the start and stop of your authority and where you should be ‘meddling’, if I can call it that. I don’t think you have the authority, when there’s a dollar amount in place, to tell that chief what that chief will or won’t buy for uniforms, whether you have a formal policy in your binder or not.”
Council President Jeremy Slowsinki advised city leaders should keep a closer eye on the issue in the future.
“I hate to drag this out, because it’s getting ridiculous here, but the whole reason this was brought before us is because, the way it was set up before is, it was at the discretion of the department heads, of the chief,” Slowsinski said. “But it was abused, and that’s why is was brought to us. That’s where I’m hesitant. It’s been abused and disregarded. I don’t know the answer, but I just hope this doesn’t happen again.”
Halverson placed responsibility for future oversight with the Police and Fire Commission.
“I hope the use their discretion as allocated under the law to review those claims appropriately,” Halverson said. “And if they are not, I would highly suggest this body cuts the budget accordingly if it’s not used correctly.”