Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey was in talks last week to hire a new recruit, fresh out of the police academy, when the recruit told him he was going to another city.
"Lakewood Police Department paid more, and he's going there," Carey said.
Carey, along with others from the city's police and fire departments, asked the City Council on Tuesday to approve $1.42 million from the city's general fund to cover salary increases for sworn employees. They said the salary boosts would make the city's police and firefighter pay more competitive.
The pay raises were approved unanimously, with one council member absent. The issue will go back to Council at the end of the month for the second required vote. If approved, the pay raises will be retroactive to March 31.
The $1.42 million is in addition to $2.2 million already earmarked in the city's budget for pay raises for 2013. The funds equate to an average 4.6 percent raise for police officers and a 7.4 percent average hike in pay for firefighters. A new police recruit, for example, will go from a starting salary of $42,802 to $45,856. A new firefighter will start at about $47,100 instead of about $43,000. The raises still leave Colorado Springs police and fire employees in the middle of the market pack, said Laura Neumann, chief of staff for Mayor Steve Bach.
The city spent 14 months studying the salaries of police and firefighters in other cities. It examined benefits and calculated in the cost of living when making comparisons. It was the first time the city had completed such a compensation study in 14 years, Neumann said. The compensation committee concluded that the Colorado Springs police and fire employees were underpaid when compared to their counterparts in other cities of similar size. For example, the study found that sworn police officers' salaries were 4.6 percent below the market rate, but benefits were 3.8 percent higher. For fire employees, pay was 7.4 percent below market, and benefits were 2.5 percent above.
Interim Fire Chief Tommy Smith said his department has seen a recent uptick of firefighters testing for positions in Denver, where the salaries are higher. A change in state law allows pension plans to transfer, which makes it easier for employees to move to other municipalities within the state.
It also has been about five years since the pay scale has been adjusted, although some employees have been eligible for "step increases" that eventually top out.
The approved compensation package included changes to workers compensation, overtime calculation and sick leave policy.
Councilman Don Knight questioned Neumann about which pot of money was being used for the raises and said he was concerned that some of the financial numbers came to the council only 48 hours before they had to vote. However, Knight joined council in approving pay raises. Council president Keith King was absent. The issue will go to Council for a second vote at its May 28 meeting.
The council also approved $300,000 to buy 12 motorcycles for the police department. Carey said half of the police department motorcycle fleet is more than 5 years old, a point where they get expensive to maintain.
"We lost an officer last July," he said. "It is dangerous work, and I want to make sure these officers have the best equipment possible."
Council members Jan Martin, Val Snider and Helen Collins voted against the motorcycle expenditure. Martin said she would rather see such big-ticket items brought to the Council in the annual budget process.
Meanwhile, the city had also embarked on a salary study for its civilian employees. However, the matrix that was used to calculate salaries was flawed, and the city will hire a consultant to complete that portion of the study. Neumann hopes to have it done in time for the 2014 budgeting process.