BRIDGEPORT — Can you put a price on public safety?

That’s what Mayor Joe Ganim has to decide.

As a candidate last year, then ex-mayor Ganim traversed the city, showing up at crime scenes, organizing vigils for victims, opening unofficial police substations, all to portray opponent Mayor Bill Finch and Police Chief Joseph Gaudett as culpable for the rise in homicides and nonfatal shootings.

But even as Ganim pledges to crack down on violent crime now that voters returned him to office, he faces the competing pressure of a bloated cop overtime bill.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the department has blown through its entire $4.3 million overtime budget.

“They’re spending at a 143 percent rate (over) last year,” said Nestor Nkwo, Ganim’s budget chief.

By the time the fiscal year ends on June 30, members of Bridgeport’s Finest are projected to have earned $10.5 million in overtime — higher than the prior five years — and double 2014’s bill.

“We have five months to really slow this trend down,” Nkwo said.

Cannot be done — says Sgt. Chuck Paris.

Paris is president of the police union, which threw its support behind Ganim when the former mayor challenged Finch last year for his old job.

“It takes a lot of manpower to help slow down the issues we’re having now with the shootings, crime and drug sales,” Paris said. “And officers are continuing to retire.”

The force, as anyone who followed the mayoral race knows, has been greatly depleted by retirements and other departures. There are 359 men and women working for the department, down from 447.

That’s 88 fewer cops.

“Public safety should be the No. 1 priority,” Paris said.

As of Friday, it appeared that argument had won out. Ganim ordered a reorganization of the department’s handful of top cops to improve “functionality, operational and economic efficiency.”

The four deputy chiefs will be more focused on crime reduction and have to be on the scene at “major incidents.”

And Assistant Chief James Nardozzi? Hired three years ago by Finch, Nardozzi had initially been tasked with cutting overtime before the loss of officers.

And some in the Ganim administration had wanted Nardozzi to take another crack at cost-cutting.

Then on Friday, Ganim eliminated his job.

Man for the job

Wilbur Chapman, a former city police chief who is serving as Ganim’s public safety adviser, said, “When our grandchildren are senior citizens, people will still be complaining about police overtime.”

“Everybody complains about overtime,” Chapman said. “The workers don’t get enough. Management says it’s too much. When I was chief (under Ganim from 2000 to 2005), that was the main bone of contention.”

In 2010, the department overspent its $6.8 million budget by just $18,327. A year later the budget had been increased to $7.3 million, and wound up $47,476 in the red.

Then in 2012 the Finch administration reduced the overtime budget to $5.8 million. It was wishful thinking. The department spent $8.6 million.

Finch in late 2012 hired Nardozzi, a veteran of the Waterbury police force and more recently dean of Post College, to help curb expenses.

At a March 2013 meeting of the City Council’s budget committee, Chief Gaudett told members: “There’s no overtime unless it’s preapproved by myself or the assistant chief, with very few exceptions. The message to the department is there is no money left in the checkbook.”

Still, when that fiscal year ended, the overtime tab was $8 million — $2.1 million over budget.

But Nardozzi eventually met his mandate. The 2014 overtime budget was reduced to $4.3 million, and the department went $902,227 over budget.

Jump to this past December. Sworn in on Dec. 1, Ganim, mayor from 1991 to 2003, announced his team inherited an estimated budget deficit of $20 million from Finch, including cop overtime.

Ganim also inherited Gaudett. The chief’s contract was supposed to expire in December, but Finch extended it five years. So Ganim has been redistributing police powers to allies within the department, like Capt. A.J. Perez, the head of detectives. Ganim also brought Chapman back.

The order came down from Ganim’s office to cut that projected $10.5 million overtime bill by $2 million.

Chapman turned to Nardozzi.

Who’s in charge?

While the lack of manpower, coupled with increased violent crime, is one reason for the ballooning overtime budget, there are other theories, like politics.

Ex-City Councilman Bob Walsh said the campaign between Finch and Ganim was in high gear when the fiscal year started in July.

“It may have just been Finch’s knee jerk reaction when violent crimes were spiking — ‘I don’t care what it takes, just get more cops more visible,’ ” Walsh speculated.

Chapman in an interview early last week said Nardozzi was “told to look at those areas where there can be a reduction in spending, without compromising service delivery or safety. If we have six people on a traffic detail, could we still function with four?”

“He’s energetic, focused and a tremendous asset for accomplishing what city government wants,” Chapman added.

Paris, early last week, said he and his members were not pleased with the renewed focus on overtime.

“I don’t want too much information out there because you don’t want the bad guys to know this,” Paris said. “They’ve taken some of the extra cars off the road. There’s other (patrol) details we’ve had out there that they’ve either eliminated or reduced.”

“This is not what we expected at this time,” Paris said. “I’ve sat down with the mayor and everyone on his staff ten times in the last two weeks, trying to talk to them regarding some of the issues we have here in the police department.”

By Friday, Nardozzi was out and Chapman in an interview said with homicides up 73 percent over the previous year and shootings up 14 percent, reduction in overtime was “secondary” to improving police operations.

But, Chapman added, cost cutting efforts will continue.

“You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. Chapman said the city is also moving forward with training new recruits, but admitted not much could be done to overcome the fact the city’s police academy can only handle one class of 32 at a time.

Chapman sounded like someone unhappy to see Nardozzi go.

“I thought he was an asset,” Chapman said, but added: “Normally the responsibility for overtime monitoring falls on the chief of police.”

And, according to Chapman, Gaudett will resume that responsibility.

Except that the changes at the top Ganim ordered Friday included giving his friend, Perez, “overall authority for strategic appointment and overtime allocation.”

“I don’t really know what’s going on,” Walsh said. “I don’t think he (Ganim) has a firm footing on the whole situation. ... But at some point, you’re going to have to cut the overtime if that’s the only place you really have the money to cut.”

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