OPD increasing fees charged to businesses
By Bridget Hall, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Businesses that want to hire Ocala Police officers for special security details starting next month will pay almost twice as much for the service and assume liability for the officer’s actions.
So far, no businesses have agreed to the new terms. Many plan to hire private security guards instead.
“We totally disagree with the contract,” said Allen Konchinsky, general manager of Easy Street Family Fun Center, which hires OPD officers for the weekends. “It’s a farce, and we’re not going to sign it”
Before the City Council approved the contract two weeks ago, OPD had no formal agreement with any of the businesses that hire police officers to work extra hours on security details. The officers are armed and in uniform but are paid by the businesses that requested them.
“We felt we should get a little control over the program,” said city attorney Patrick Gilligan, adding that a local abortion clinic’s pending lawsuit against the city for withholding special duty officers partly sparked the policy changes.
The contract, which businesses must sign to receive officers after June 1, states that officers on special duty assignments still report to their OPD superiors and do not take orders from the businesses that hired them.
“We wanted to eliminate for anybody the appearance that if you pay the guy you can tell him what to do,” Gilligan said.
The contract also exempts the city from any legal action over injuries caused by the officer while on special duty. Gilligan said it is up to the business avoid putting the officer in a bad situation.
“We have the expectation of those that hire us that they are going to act responsibly,” he said. “If the businesses don’t and suck us into it, they’re going to have to pay the Piper.”
“But some area businesses, including the Ocala Women’s Center abortion clinic, say the contract puts an unreasonable amount of the burden on them.
“Our interpretation was that it makes businesses liable for anything that goes wrong and then denies them access to the jury system,” said clinic spokeswoman Marti Mackenzie, referring to a provision in which businesses waive the right to trial by jury if they sue the city over the security program.
Gilligan said the jury trial waiver is standard business practice in contract law because bench trials are more efficient and three to five times less expensive.
Businesses will also face greater costs under the new policies. Instead of paying the officer directly, as they have been, businesses will now pay the city Finance Department, which will make the necessary Medicare, Social Security, pension and tax deductions before putting the extra pay in the officers’ paychecks.
Those deductions and some overhead costs are the reason the hourly rate will jump from $15 to
$28, Gilligan said.
OPD’s new rate is on par with what other law enforcement agencies charge. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office charges $25 an hour, while the police departments in Ormond Beach and Gainesville charge $30 and $32 an hour, respectively.
But some local businesses that were used to the $15 rate are not sure they can afford the security detail now.
“Most of our problem is with the rate increase,” said Hampton Inn general manager Carol Brockington, adding that the hotel is taking bids from private security companies for a guard to patrol the property nightly.
The policy changes come less than a month after a federal judge ruled that OPD cannot refuse to provide special duty officers to the Ocala Women’s Center while the abortion clinic pursues its lawsuit against local government and law enforcement.
OPD sent an officer to guard the clinic May 15, believing that clinic owner Dr. James Pendergraft would sign the contract, Deputy Chief Andy Krietemeyer said. But because Pendergraft has not, he has not received an officer since then, Krietemeyer said.
If the rate increase and contract restrictions cause fewer businesses to use the special duty program, the officers who earn overtime pay by volunteering for those details will also be affected.
“This cuts into the guys who need the money, the guys who need the extra hours,” Konchinsky said, “I feel bad for them. They’ve been very professional, but they’re going to be the ones suffering, and it’s not their fault. They’re caught in the middle.”