The Columbia Police Department is offering a 7 percent salary increase for all department personnel in an effort to attract new recruits and retain officers currently with the department who may be looking elsewhere for better pay.
Police Chief Skip Holbrook and City Manager Theresa Wilson announced the pay increase for department employees Tuesday as a way of addressing the 45 vacancies the department has been struggling to fill.
The increase won’t go just to new hires.
Wilson said the pay raise will take effect in the first pay period of January 2015 and, depending on the amount of training or education a police officer candidate has, the pay could increase.
Currently, the starting salary for a non-certified police officer candidate is $30,494.44 and increases slightly based on the level of education a candidate has upon graduation from the state Criminal Justice Academy. Now, new hires will start at $32,628.
Holbrook said when he took the position as police chief several months ago, he was faced with the problem of expanding a police department that already had 25 vacancies as the city’s entertainment districts continued to grow.
After examining the amount of requests for service in the Vista, Holbrook said there would need to be an additional 20 officers to patrol the nightlife district.
“We were lagging behind significantly,” Holbrook said. “That problem was compounded as time went by on continued departures and retention issues with the police department. Some of them left law enforcement all together, some left through disciplinary actions and, over the last few months, it got to a critical point where we were losing experienced police officers due to the fact that we didn’t have competitive pay.”
Holbrook worked with Wilson to develop a plan to recruit and retain police officers who have been leaving for agencies such as the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, which offers a starting salary of $36,501, according to the department’s website.
“Your employees have got to be excited and proud about where they work, and you also have to pay competitively,” Holbrook said. “This adjustment certainly doesn’t make us the highest paid, but it takes us from lower tier to above-average tier. Coupled with professional opportunities and diversity it helps us compete with top-tiered agencies.”
The 7 percent pay increase will cost the department $842,855 of its existing budget.
The department also is offering an additional 5 percent pay increase for certified field training officers and crime scene investigators to help the issues of retaining qualified and experienced officers, which is projected to cost the department $42,967 of its existing budget.
“One of our most critical areas moving forward for the department is the hiring of field training officers because of all the hiring we are going to be doing,” Holbrook said. “Training these new hires to the high standards that we expect is going to require the very best police officers we have.”
Also, because of the department’s current 45 vacancies, it has not been able to fill the 15 promotional positions available. But, Holbrook said the silver-lining in the vacancies is that they will be able to recruit individuals and train them in the demands of being a modern-day police officer.
“We have an opportunity to hire those people,” Holbrook said. “We are going to be identifying 15 of our next leaders for the department. People that are going to lead this department and have the vision to move this department forward to face challenges.”
Holbrook said the plan to recruit and retain police officer candidates includes a $500 annual residency bonus to entice new officers to live within the city limits, take-home vehicles, a $500 signing bonus for certified new officer hires as well as waiving the one-year requirement for new officers to be able to obtain a low-interest mortgage.
Wilson said the pay raise for the police department is something that needed to be addressed immediately instead of waiting on recommendations from a citywide study attempting to reveal pay discrepancies in other city departments.
“We are already in the midst of a compensation and classification study,” Wilson said. “It’s a comprehensive look across the city, but it’s because of the critical nature of the vacancies in the department that we address this now.”
Wilson said because the pay increases and benefits will only use 30 percent of the department’s current fiscal budget, city counsel did not have to vote to approve the increase. But one hurdle facing the department is how to sustain the increase for future years.
“The issue that we will have to deal with for next year, I anticipate, is will we have to have resources to sustain this effort,” Wilson said. She did not mention what options might be for that.
Still, Holbrook views the pay increase as a defining moment for the department.
“Columbia is on the verge of greatness, and we have to position ourselves alongside it to move forward,” Holbrook said.