Flagstaff police salary a budget priority
Employee pay is once again at the top of Flagstaff City Council’s budget discussion list. Council will be discussing the issue, along with several other budget priorities, at two hearings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
Interim City Manager Jeff Meilbeck said he will present a balanced budget to Council on Tuesday.
Of particular concern is pay and benefits for Flagstaff police officers. Council held a roundtable meeting with Flagstaff Police Chief Kevin Treadway and Deputy Chief Dan Musselman Friday morning to discuss the department’s struggles to hire and retain police officers and dispatchers.
The department has lost a large number of officers and dispatchers over the last several years. The department has had a nearly 30 percent vacancy rate since 2013, Musselman said. It has a budget for 114 commissioned officers.
The department’s dispatch center has had a 36 percent vacancy rate since 2013, Musselman said. The center is authorized for 30 employees and currently has 22.
Many dispatch recruits don’t realize how hard and stressful the work can be until they’re working a 10- or 12-hour graveyard shift, he said. A number of those who leave the department leave the field of dispatch altogether.
Since July 2013, Flagstaff Police have lost around 16 officers, Musselman said. In comparison, Scottsdale, which is also concerned about retaining officers for its department, has lost 11 officers since July 2013. It has a budget for 340 officers.
In exit interviews with officers leaving the department, 83 percent said they were not satisfied with their salary, 70 percent said the cost of the benefits package was too high and 87 percent said they were satisfied with their superior.
Part of the problem is that the recruits applying for a position at the department are typically young college graduates, Musselman said. The average age of a Flagstaff police officer is around 34 years old. The national average is around 40.
This makes for a very young department, he said. These are people who are looking to pay off their student loans, buy a house or purchase a new car. Flagstaff’s high cost of living can be very discouraging for these young recruits.
Councilmember Eva Putzova asked why the department was focusing on hiring recent graduates and not more experienced officers.
Treadway said the pool of candidates that apply for the Flagstaff Police Department was very thin. The department holds an applicant test every month. Out of the 30 applicants that show up for the test, 20 pass. Out of the 20 that pass, 10 will pass the physical exam. After interviewing those 10 applicants, five move forward to the background process. Typically only two will pass the background process, he said. The recruits then go on to the academy, where some make it and some don’t.
Treadway said the department would love to hire more experienced officers. It took them two years to hire the latest experienced officer. The salary offered by the Flagstaff department just doesn’t have many takers.
Putzova asked if there was another way that the department could better target its recruitment efforts.
Treadway said the department was working on a solution to the recruitment process but perhaps the city’s energy would be better spent on retaining officers.
The department has instituted a number of other incentives to keep officers at the department, including a uniform allowance, tuition reimbursement and streamlining paperwork for minor incidents.
The department is also considering a first-time homeowner program that would match up to $5,000 on a down payment on a house.
All of this has helped slow the rate of officers leaving the department, but it hasn’t stopped it and it hasn’t increased the pool of candidates available to recruit, Musselman said.
Treadway and Musselman suggested a 2 percent market increase for all city employees, including sworn officers, and different pay schedules for different dispatch shifts. It’s unknown, currently, how much this would cost the city.
For example, dispatcher who works the swing shift would get an extra 3 percent and those working the graveyard shift would get an extra 5 percent. This would cost the city around $23,000 for one year.
Putzova and Councilmember Coral Evans suggested that the city might consider a housing allowance to help cover the cost of living in the city for new recruits and current officers, too.
Putzova pointed out that the city may never be able to address the difference in pay for police officers in Flagstaff compared to other cities. But if the city could adjust the cost of living in the city through a housing allowance, then maybe difference wouldn’t feel that great. She suggested a roundtable with other large employers in the city to discuss the idea.
Musselman, Treadway and Councilmember Scott Overton said that a pay increase might be a better incentive.
Employees look at how much they’re making compared to what they could be making in other cities, Overton said. They don’t typically focus on how much housing costs.
“We’ve done a whole lot of work on this,” Treadway said. “We think that compensation is the missing link and we need a mechanism to move employees more quickly from the minimum base pay toward the maximum base pay.”
Council will discuss the issue further during its budget hearings starting at noon on Tuesday and at 8 a.m. on Wednesday at City Hall, 211 W. Aspen Ave.