Globe Editorial

The truth will save you money

July 31, 2010

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ALTHOUGH POLICE unions and their political supporters have challenged the notion that using civilian flagmen rather than police details is saving the state money, the facts tell a persuasive story.

Before the use of flaggers on state-led construction projects, traffic-management expenses, calculated over a five-year period, amounted to 4.4 percent of overall construction spending. Since the Patrick administration put its civilian flagger program in place, that expense has dropped to 3.4 percent. That’s a decline of more than 21 percent. From the fall of 2008 to this spring, it translates to a savings of some $12 million.

Luisa Paiewonsky, the highway division administrator at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, says two aspects of the new policy have driven most of the savings. First, the agency now decides how many flaggers are necessary at a work site; under the old arrangement, police officials more or less dictated how many detail officers would be assigned. Second, flaggers are paid only for the hours they actually work, while most police detail officers get a mandatory minimum — usually four hours — even if they are only needed for a fraction of that period.

Supporters of police details claim that civilian flaggers earn as much as, if not more than, police officers when benefits are figured in. And in some instances, that’s true. Still, according to the highway division’s analysis of the 31 state-led projects that required traffic-management personnel during a work week in May, the state saved $28,067 over those five days by employing civilians rather than an equal number of police officers.

The highway division is instituting further reforms to the program, such as contract language that reserves the right to substitute state-employed flagmen when a winning bid calls for an excessive hourly rate for flaggers whom the contractor would hire. (Flagger pay is sometimes inflated in bids as a way to build in some profit.)

That could increase the savings, but the evidence is already clear. As much as it may have ruffled law enforcement feathers, the administration’s civilian flagger program has saved the state money. Cities and towns that still rely exclusively on police details should take note.

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