SALISBURY – There was not a chair to be found in council chambers this week as bright yellow shirts of public works employees filled the room who voiced that they are in need of a pay increase just as much as the police department.
Last week, Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan told the council how the city is struggling to retain officers who once they have a few years of experience are often lured by other, better paying agencies.
In an attempt to keep Salisbury competitive in retaining police officers, City Council members agreed that if Mayor Jim Ireton chooses to advance a budget amendment they will be willing to consider granting a $650,000 annual boost to the Salisbury Police Department (SPD) budget to raise officer salaries.
This week as the issue came before the City Council in ordinance form Duncan presented to the public the ongoing issues within the department.
This year SPD has lost five officers, four of which went on to other agencies. She added that speaking closely with officers over the past week it has come to her attention that the number officers who are seeking other employment and are actively engaged in application process has risen to 13.
SPD has one of the lowest starting salaries for officers in the area. At $36,400, Salisbury is just below Fruitland, which pays rookie officers $36,500. Both agencies are well below the Wicomico and Worcester County Sheriff’s departments, which have starting salaries of $41,300 and $42,100, respectively.
Salisbury has 92 sworn officers and 30 civilian officers who serve a population of 30,300. Last year the department served 51,000 calls for service, which averages out to 1,085 calls per officer while 47 are on duty.
SPD keeps 47 officers on duty at a time and the number of calls per officer averages out to be 1,085 annually. The number of calls a Salisbury officer responds to is significantly higher to other nearby agencies, such as Annapolis with 824 calls per officer and Dover that has 716 calls per officer.
Duncan furthered that out of the nine full-time SPD detectives, each had to deal with an average of 1,893 cases investigated last year. There are also three dispatcher positions open and one frozen.
“As a chief of a metropolitan area, that equality cannot be strained,” the Chief said. “We work to serve a population that deserves the absolute best.”
According to Duncan’s assessment, $400,000 additional a year would provide a slight increase in pay scale for 60 officers at the lower- to middle-end of the ladder, the most likely to transfer.
She said $650,000 would be ideal and would “fix” instead of treat the problem, at least for the time being. An annual budget increase of $650,000, which would bring the SPD budget up to about $10 million a year, would allow better pay scaling for all sworn officers, including supervisors.
Buddy Brooks of the Maryland Jaycees stated that there is no argument that SPD works hard for the community but so does Public Works.
“The Public Works Department is also losing workers at an alarming rate to nearby cities and counties across the state,” Brooks said. “There are also 65 percent of city employees who have second jobs, it’s not that they want to work themselves to death it is just the fact of the matter.”
Professional Engineer Jana Potvin said she began working for Public Works in 2005 and it wasn’t unusual to receive an annual 2 step pay increase. In 2009 those raises came to an end and her hours decreased while furlough days increased.
“Between pay reduction and increase in retirement contributions … as well as increases in insurance premiums it is obvious that my salary has lost a significant portion,” she said.
Potvin furthered that over the last six years her department has lost several engineers to other communities for better salaries and room for advancement while the remaining employees pick up a larger work load.
“I don’t doubt that the police department is doing more for less, all city employees are doing more for less,” she said. “It angers me that the mayor, the city administrator and the council are here to support an increase for select city employees any more than the rest of us.”
Salisbury resident Kay Gibson thanked the council for taking action.
“We have been under paying and under supporting our police officers for many years,” she said. “I am a taxpayer and I am willing to pay more. We need a strong police force with a lot of experience. We have a new police chief, we owe her our support…we do not need to be losing people because we don’t pay a salary compared to others.”
Councilwoman Eugenie Shields acknowledged the fact that the city’s largest asset is its employees and agreed it has been too long since all city employees received a raise. She advocated for all city employees to receive a one-step pay increase and asked for the council to discuss the suggestion at a future work session.
“You need to treat everybody equal, I understand that, we are supposed to be one big happy family and we don’t want to pick one department over the other,” she said.
According to Shields, it will take around $359,000 to give all city employees a one-step pay increase.
Council Vice President Deborah Campbell said since she joined the council eight years ago the city has been promising to raise the police department pay grades but it never happened.
Campbell said that if the Public Works department’s salary structure is just as flawed as the police department’s she will be willing to fix it.
“I want to look at those positions and I want to fix that core problem, but you don’t fix it with a broad brush,” Campbell said. “It takes hard work and you have a council here that is dedicated to that kind of hard work.”
Duncan approached the council saying that the $650,000 figure could be lowered by subtracting the pay periods that have already passed in this fiscal year, which is July-September. There are 15 pay periods remaining and close to $448,000 would increase the pay scale for 60 officers.
The council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Laura Mitchell absent, to amend the ordinance to reflect the change in the budget amendment. The amendment was followed by the same vote to pass the ordinance all together in first reading.
“This is not done yet,” Council President Terry Cohen said. “There still needs to be more discussion before second reading but time is of the essence.”