Once losing officers to retirement, Pittsfield hiring retirees to fill police department

  • Acting Pittsfield police Chief Joe Collins received a formal offer to take the job long-term on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Collins, who previously worked in Barnstead, Effingham and Gilmanton before retiring to Nashville, Tenn., joined the Pittsfield department during a time of turmoil that saw staffing drop to one full-time officer and one part-time officer. Courtesy of Pittsfield Police Department

Monitor staff
Published: 8/29/2018 6:01:39 PM

After a summer clawing its way back from dire staffing levels, the Pittsfield Police Department made a major step Tuesday in securing its direction for the future.

The town’s select board voted to offer acting Chief Joe Collins a long-term part-time position Tuesday night, adding stability to a department that just a few months ago was down to one full-time officer and one part-timer, walloped by a spate of departures amid changes to the state’s retirement system.

Since Collins joined the department in June, he’s been part police officer and part recruiter – balancing management and coverage of the town with a push to fill vacancies. He even introduced two job candidates to the board in the same meeting he received his offer. It’s all part of the job to Collins.

“We just stuck with the process the way we screen,” he said.” And then I reached out to several people that I’ve known over the years, just from personal contacts.”

Collins is a relatively old hand in New Hampshire policing, having worked in Barnstead and Effingham before retiring as a chief from Gilmanton as a chief on Jan. 1, 2016, then spending time in Nashville, Tenn. As chief in Pittsfield, he’ll work 32 hours a week, which will allow him to collect a pension and a salary because he will be grandfathered in before changes in the retirement system that will further limit the hours retirees can work on a part-time basis.

Pittsfield police are now on the other side of a phenomenon that’s partly the cause of its staffing turmoil in the first place, select board Chairman J.C. Allard said, noting that numerous officers headed to other department seeking to secure a 32-hour retirement job before the clock ran out.

“A few months ago we were on the opposite end of that,” Allard said, referring to exiting retirees. “We had officers leaving us in order to get retired before the changes come about.”

A series of exits dropped the department from space for seven full-time officers and five part-time officers to one-and-a-fraction in mid-May – one of the officers was “very much” part-time, as Allard put it.

The exodus of officers was brought on by reasons ranging from personal issues – out-of-town officers wanting to work closer to their families, one moving to care for his elderly parents – to the changing retiree hour caps, which cost Pittsfield not just manpower but experience.

“It’s an issue I suspect is going on all over New Hampshire, with the pending changes to the retirement system,” Allard said. “We more or less encouraged ... officers to retire.”

As for Collins, a Barnstead native and Pittsfield High School graduate, it’s been a whirlwind return from retirement in Tennessee. He said down south, he never lost his desire to return to the state where he and his wife grew up.

“We were just itching to get back to New Hampshire,” he said. “We were just looking to get back here.”

After learning of Collins’s interest through the grapevine, the select board reached out. And he had a busy re-entry to the workforce, according to Allard.

“He flew up here on a Sunday, and he went to work on Monday morning,” Allard recalled. “His first day here he started working the phones calling departments, calling New Hampshire officers he knew looking for contacts.”

Collins started as acting chief June 4, still part of a formal chief search that started with a field of 10 and ended with Collins.

If Collins hit the ground running, he’s put in some more miles since, both searching for new hires and coordinating with police in Barnstead, Northwood, Epsom and Chichester, as well as with state troopers to augment coverage through the department’s meager times.

The help from outside allowed the town to focus on shoring up the department; a few hires were in the pipeline when Collins started, but a lot have come aboard since, bringing the roster up to five full-time officers and four part-time officers. Some are longtime police with the needed certifications; some are still making their way through the academy.

“We’re trying to get good mix of new guys and experienced guys,” Collins said.

Two of those guys – decidedly on the side of experience – made an appearance at Collins’s coronation Tuesday night, when the newly minted though technically-pending-a-background-check chief offered them up for approval by the board.

One of the candidates was Donald Sullivan, the current police chief in Alexandria, who said he wanted to supplement his salary with some shifts in the Suncook Valley. The other was a lieutenant from a neighboring town looking to retire and squeak in under the deadline to be a 32-hour part-timer while still collecting retirement benefits. State law will soon limit pensioned part-timers to 26 hours per week.

Allard said Collins’s compensation was still being negotiated as of Wednesday afternoon; the chairman did not give a salary range. Collins earns $55,809 in annual pension, according to New Hampshire Retirement Systems records.

The department still has a ways to go, with one or two vacancies left to fill and changes in coverage – the town has cut 20 hours per week from the previous 24/7 police coverage schedule, according to Allard. Still, Allard said he counts the town fortunate for how things have shaken out since May, both with Collins and with the department as a whole.

“Things looked so desperate in May; now there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel,” Allard said. “I’m sleeping better now than I was the first of June.”

(Nick Upton can be reached at 369-3315 or at nupton@cmonitor.com.)

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