'Money grab': Is East Providence profiting from deceptive billing for police details?
Every year, police departments across Rhode Island rake in millions of dollars on special details, sending the profit to their general funds, available to spend on areas other than law enforcement.
A three-month investigation by The Hummel Report found that local cities and towns can largely set their own rates, tacking on “administrative fees” and extra charges for police cruisers up to $25 per hour. It generates revenue that goes well beyond what it costs to schedule the details and process payments to the officers and civilians who work them.
And the vendors, who in many cases are required to schedule the details, have little control over the costs. In the case of public utilities like Rhode Island Energy, the added costs will factor into the amount they pass along to ratepayers.
Now, a retired officer in East Providence is calling out his city for not being transparent with the vendors who pay for police details. He says the invoices are at best misleading — and at worst deceptive — about how the money charged is actually being spent.
“To me, it’s another money grab, along with [speed] cameras,” said Mark Norton, who retired as a sergeant from the police department 14 months ago after a 28-year career. While he was an active officer, Norton was always one of the top earners on special details.
Money charged does not correspond with what workers are paid
After resuming detail work five months after his retirement, he found, as a retired officer, that while he was earning good money — $41 per hour — it was substantially less than what active officers receive. They are being paid $55 to $63 per hour, depending on rank. Civilian traffic control personnel are paid $30 per hour.
Norton would often run into officers from neighboring towns who said their active and retired officers earned the same. So he did some more digging, surveying police departments across Rhode Island. He found that the vast majority paid their active and retired officers the same. When there was a disparity, it was minimal.
Then he took a closer look at his own department: Norton discovered that the city was billing its vendors $65 an hour for everyone, no matter how much the people working the details were being paid. He took issue with vendor invoices that said “Mark Norton @ $65 hour” when that was not close to what he earned.
“I’m happy with the $41 [per hour]. I’m blessed to have the job, and I know it’s good money,” Norton said. “But if you’re going to pay me $41, bill out at $41.”
He added that the police department keeps two sets of figures: one with the amount that is billed to the vendors; the other with what is actually paid to the officers. The money coming in from vendors is sent to the city’s finance office, where checks are cut to pay those working the special details. The city keeps the rest.
Norton said East Providence has been doing this for years, and while the procedure pre-dates Roberto DaSilva’s election as mayor four years ago, he has the ability to correct it.
East Providence's mayor: Difference in money is a 'service fee'
DaSilva, in a recent interview with The Hummel Report at his office, pushed back strongly, saying the vendors are getting what they pay for: someone at a construction site to ensure safety and traffic control, whether it’s a civilian or a retired or active officer.
DaSilva, who was a captain in the Pawtucket Police Department before his election in 2018, said that other communities tack on administrative fees of 10% or more. East Providence does not — and the difference between what active officers and others make, in effect, is the administrative fee that helps pay for scheduling personnel and processing payments. He said he sees no problem sending invoices that charge $65 an hour for everyone, even if they earn less.
“I kind of look at that like if I was taking my car to get an oil change,” DaSilva said. “I’m paying $90 for the oil change whether it’s an apprentice doing work on the oil change or it’s a person getting paid $30 an hour, you know, twice what the apprentice is getting paid. You’re paying for a service and we charge the service fee. And the difference [between] what we charge for the service fee and what we pay the officers goes to administer the program.”
As profits from special details grew, the fee increased again
However you look at it, the money adds up quickly. Two years ago, after paying those who worked the special details, the city made a profit of $237,047 on labor costs alone; a $25 per hour charge for cruisers brought in another $319,670, for a total of $556,717, according to figures provided by the city. Last year the profit increased to $294,228, with cruiser revenue of $285,150 for a total of $579,378. That was based on the city charging $61 an hour at the time.
Despite the surplus, Chief Christopher Francesconi sent a letter to all the vendors on Nov. 28 informing them that the detail rate would be increasing to $65 per hour, citing a contractual labor increase for active officers in the union. It offered no specifics on what everyone working the details is actually paid.
That profit goes into the city’s general fund and can be used however the mayor and City Council deem appropriate.
“The bottom line is this, though: All the money that comes into the city goes to the operation of the city,” DaSilva said. “If we are fortunate enough to bring in additional revenue from whatever program it may be, it helps to offset any increases that we have to put on the backs of the taxpayers.”
Asked if the city would consider putting it into a restricted receipt account to be used only by the police, DaSilva told us during the interview that he did not believe the state would allow the city to do so. His office later clarified that, saying East Providence does, in fact, have the right to set up restricted accounts. But, “as a matter of practice, the administration believes restrictive accounts are not favorable,” according to the mayor’s spokeswoman, Patricia Resende.
Are fees being passed along to Rhode Island Energy ratepayers?
Norton questions why customers of utilities like Rhode Island Energy should be contributing to the general fund in East Providence. Rhode Island Energy has been the second-highest vendor in the city each of the past two years, paying East Providence $241,370 (when it was National Grid) and $225,305 last year.
AGI construction, which installs gas lines for Rhode Island Energy, paid the most for special details in East Providence last year: $439,960. Last week one of its crews was installing a gas line near East Knowlton Street, where Norton worked a detail.
“It’s one thing to take money from me, but I thought: they’re really taking money from the utility customers through all the utilities,” Norton said. “And it’s not just the utility company; everybody’s utilities have gone up. People are having trouble paying their bills. Why should people’s utility money go to the general fund of the City of East Providence for the mayor to use for whatever he wants?”
Norton added: “If the money had gone to the retired officers, we’d have to pay income taxes on it. So the state and the federal government are losing money, too. It seems like everybody is losing out, except the City of East Providence.”
Is there any oversight or regulation of special detail fees?
And there appears to be no oversight or regulation about what a department charges. A spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission said the agency has no jurisdiction over what local communities do concerning special details.
Brian Schuster, a spokesman for Rhode Island Energy, said the utility at times has to negotiate with the community where it is doing work about the scope of the special details and how much police protection is actually needed, especially on side roads where there is not much traffic.
But, ultimately, the utility does not have much leverage, because it has to secure a permit from the city or town to do work, with a special detail assigned. And in many communities there is also a fee to pull a permit.
How the state DOT negotiated its own fees with East Providence
The only vendor that is not charged $65 per hour for everyone who works in East Providence is the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which provided The Hummel Report with a five-page memorandum of agreement it signed with the city in 2012. The DOT requires East Providence to bill what it is paying each person who works a special detail. Added to the bill is a 10% administrative fee for labor costs.
A table shows that the city increased the rates it charges the DOT last fall by just under 6% for patrol officers and up to 7.5% for sergeants and higher. Retired officers received no increase, remaining at $41 per hour, and civilians get $30 per hour. The administrative fee translates to $4.10 per hour for retired officers and $3 per hour for civilians — much less than other vendors in East Providence are ultimately paying.
DOT Spokesman Charles St. Martin, in an email, said: “The Department reimburses police departments based on each cities’ and towns’ individually negotiated union contracts (and we play no role in that negotiation). The 10% admin fee is on the total labor only, and is the same with every city and town we have an [agreement] with for police details.”
In East Providence, the retired officers and civilians are not part of the union and therefore not covered by the contract. (DaSilva has been asked several times to increase pay for retired officers and civilians, to no avail.)
Norton says the agreement with DOT tells him the other vendors have no idea what East Providence is doing.
“DaSilva is not the first to do it. It’s been done by city managers, been done by the chiefs of police, but it doesn’t make it right,” Norton said. “He has options: He can pay [the retired officers] what everybody gets paid, or he can bill out correctly — like he does to DOT.”
How much administrative work is involved with automated app?
In East Providence, there are approximately 20 retired officers in the special detail rotation and about a dozen civilians. Chief Francesconi said that “a significant portion of our details on a day-to-day basis are filled by retirees and civilian traffic control people simply because we don’t have the manpower right now [to use active officers].” That means the city is keeping 37% of what is being billed for the retired officers and 54% percent for civilians.
Norton also questions how much administrative cost there actually is. As in most communities, the process is automated. Several years ago the department began using an app for scheduling. The list of details is posted on the app at 8 a.m. for the following day. Officers bid, based on seniority and detail hours already worked. Vendors contact a lieutenant requesting a detail, entering the details into the app, but it’s part of his or her job. And a clerk in the department processes the time sheets, keeps the two sets of figures and communicates with the city’s finance office. All vendors register with the app.
“They don’t have to re-create it,” Norton said. “They have to do very little. We get a slip to sign, it goes to a clerk in the Police Department, who handles payroll and puts everything in. Changes require a little more work.”
DaSilva said: “If you really want to break it down, you could break it down by each individual person that does anything to do with a detail. But, am I saying that the cost or the administration fee is going to be entirely used for every single dollar that goes through administering the program? We believe it covers the entire cost; if there’s any overages, it goes into the general fund.”
Other RI municipalities are also making money from police details
East Providence isn’t the only community making big bucks from police details. Last year the City of Providence made $1.7 million above what it paid out for 19,125 details assigned, in part because its billing rates include a hefty 33.75% surcharge on the hourly rate an officer makes. The amount varies by rank, but active and retired members are paid the same.
That means vendors must pay $76.03 per hour for a patrol officer and $101.80 per hour for a captain. A plainclothes detective captain commands $113.78 — the highest on the billing sheet. A cruiser costs $15 an hour, but the city wants to increase that rate.
Three years ago the City of Warwick made just shy of half a million dollars in what it calls “excess” — two years ago it was $452,728 and the finance office says this year it will be a little lower (it is still waiting for audited figures).
Through a spokeswoman, Finance Director Peder A. Schaefer said the money from special details goes through a special revenue fund.
“Once every three months, we make a transfer to the general fund," he said. "The city charges an 8.65% administrative fee to the hourly rate paid to its officers.”
Last year, the City of Pawtucket made a profit of just under $300,000, all of it going to the city’s general fund. We asked Mayor Don Grebien if he’d considered setting up a restricted receipt account.
“Could we do it? Sure,” Grebien said. “Would we do it? I don’t know. We put [the money] where it’s needed. We’re not holding back on police funds. We don’t like to get into the segregation of funds. It’s much better to have the revenue available.”
Even smaller communities are bringing in extra revenue from details, but Bristol puts the money generated by use of its cruisers into a Police Department account earmarked for repairs to the fleet and purchase of new vehicles when needed. The town's general fund last year received just under $45,000, in part, from a 20% administrative fee, while $150,842 went into the special vehicle account. After vehicle repairs and purchases in 2022, $14,165 remained in the restricted account.
City has become 'addicted to the money,' says retired officer
Up until the mid-1990s, anyone in East Providence working a detail had to chase the vendor for payment on their own. A retired officer who worked during that period told The Hummel Report that he’d often have to wait six weeks to be paid.
So the city stepped in and offered to collect payments from vendors and cut checks to those working details, usually within a week or two. The “administrative fee” was created to build up cash flow so the city could pay its officers while it was waiting for payment. It’s a model many departments have adopted.
But, the officer added: “Now it’s viewed as a revenue source. They’re addicted to the money. If [the retired officers] are going to stand out there in the heat, and the cold rain and do the same job we’re doing, they should get paid the same. In East Providence it’s a shame that they don’t do that. They’re making money off their retirees.”
The 'merry-go-round' of police details is hard to quit
For the first decade of his career, Norton did not work on details. When he was promoted to sergeant he began to take them on to supplement his pay. It helped finance a second house in New Hampshire and put his two children through college.
“I always worked the most number of hours. I was the highest earner in the city. Then COVID came along and firemen took [the top spot],” he said.
Norton told younger officers that working details was like a merry-go-round that doesn’t stop: the pay is good, the work is not demanding and “once you get on, it’s difficult to get off.”
He says his criticism of DaSilva is not personal. In the years leading up to his retirement, when he was assigned to the Community Policing Unit, Norton worked closely with the newly elected mayor and would often see him at various events.
The two first met nearly two decades ago as extras on the set of the Showtime crime series "Brotherhood," filmed in Rhode Island in the mid-2000s. DaSilva, who was then a Pawtucket police officer, and Norton were cast for a scene as two cops escorting someone they had arrested into a vehicle outside his house.
Sgt Mark Norton has worked his official last day as an East Providence Police officer. Sgt Norton served East Providence as a police officer for 29... | By Bob DaSilva, East Providence Mayor | Facebook
A clip that DaSilva posted on his Facebook page when Norton retired shows two much-younger officers flanking the suspect, with Norton putting his hand on top of his head while not so gently putting him in the patrol car.
DaSilva wrote in the post: “Since meeting Mark on set and getting to know him I have considered him a friend. Sgt. Norton I wish you well in retirement. Go enjoy time with your family and friends. I know we’ll see you working a detail here and there, stay safe and enjoy retirement.”
Norton told The Hummel Report: “I took an oath as a police officer, as did DaSilva and Francesconi. It seems I’m the only one living up to that oath in this situation. It would be neglect of duty, dishonesty if I did not act on this after discovering the process."
The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.