Boston officials gathered at City Hall yesterday to consider whether the city should join Governor Deval Patrick's efforts to scale back the use of expensive police details at road construction sites in Massachusetts.
The verdict? Forget it.
City officials and police union leaders joined forces to defend the current system of requiring the presence of a police officer when streets are dug up or utility work is under way.
"We feel we are in good hands with the men and women of the Boston Police Department," said city Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin.
Patrick imposed rules this year to replace police officers with civilian flaggers at many sites where construction is paid by the state. The initiative was hotly contested by police unions, which say the presence of an officer improves safety. But taxpayer groups have long called police details a waste of money and an unnecessary union perquisite. Many police officers enhance their pay with as much as 50 hours a week of extra work on traffic details.
Under Patrick's rules, it remains up to city and town officials to decide whether they want to use police or flaggers at work sites where construction is paid by the local community and at utility projects.
In Boston at least, it appears there will be no change.
Union officials at yesterday's hearing - which was called by Councilor Sam Yoon, a possible candidate for mayor in 2009 - had the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino's administration, as well as utility companies. Yoon also said there does not appear to be a need for change.
"We support the use of police to perform traffic management," said Amy Smith, director of gas construction for National Grid, praising officers for directing traffic around numerous work sites in the Financial District and North End during a recent large-scale gas service outage in April in which no workers were injured. "We have an excellent relationship with the officers."
Until Patrick made the changes earlier this year, Massachusetts had been the only state that required uniformed officers to direct traffic at most road projects. In Boston, paid police details are protected by city ordinance and collective-bargaining agreements with police unions through 2010.
Collectively, businesses, utility companies, and taxpayers pay $30 million a year in police details in Boston, said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the lone advocate yesterday for loosening the detail requirement.
Tyler said civilian flaggers in Boston earn about $34.85 an hour, which is 14 percent less than the average police detail rate of $40.70.
Representatives of National Grid and Verizon said they operate under the rules of the jurisdictions where they are working.
A report to the City Council from the state's Department of Public Utilities, which must approve rate changes, also left unanswered how much customers would save if utilities did not have to fold police details into their construction costs. The report said police detail costs are a small part of the construction costs passed on to customers.
Tyler said the city, which must pay for police details on public works projects, would save $1.5 million to $2 million with civilian flaggers.
The ordinance mandating police details "should be amended so that it gives the police commissioner discretion in determining when police officers are needed for street permit work and situations in which it would be appropriate to utilize civilian flaggers or even digital signs," Tyler said.
That was not a popular opinion.
"This is a good-government program," said Thomas J. Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. "If you ever erode this program, you would only erode the public's safety."
Questioning the value of police details, he said, "diminishes and devalues" the city's officers, who earn an average of $17,000 a year in paid details.
Boston Police Superintendent in Chief Robert Dunford said having officers at construction sites is valuable because they can enforce city traffic rules on drivers, overrule traffic signals, and change traffic patterns as necessary. "I would not, as a resident or a police officer, want to leave traffic control to civilian flaggers," he said.
Tinlin, the city's transportation commissioner, said police officers know Boston's often confusing roads and have public safety in mind rather than the interests of the contractor when guiding traffic.
"It's good government not to be beholden to someone on the contractor's payroll," Tinlin said.
John C. Drake can be reached at email@example.com.