Owensboro City Commissioners said they agree with Mayor Tom Watson that the city needs to find ways to attract and retain police officers.
Commissioners said Friday that discussions about how to hire and keep officers will take place when they begin discussing the next city budget in the spring.
At Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, officials praised an OPD drug investigation that resulted in the seizure of 151 pounds of crystal methamphetamine that was coming to the city. OPD Police Chief Art Ealum said the department has several open officer positions, which prompted Watson to say more has to be done to hire officers and keep those with experience.
“OPD is down in numbers,” Watson said Tuesday. “They are competing with other communities for recruitment and retention, and we as a City Commission, I believe we need to do everything we can do in our budget next year to try and give the police department all the tools they need to protect our community.”
“You have agencies that are smaller than us that pay considerably more than we do,” Ealum said Wednesday. Even agencies where starting officer pay is equitable to OPD’s “pull away from us pretty quick,” he said.
The Georgetown Police Department, for example, starts officers at $40,000 a year. OPD’s starting salary is about $38,000, Ealum said.
“After year one, they jump to $53,000 and ours inches forward to $39,356,” Ealum said.
Currently, he said, public perceptions of law enforcement are down, so “the desire to get involved in this profession is extremely low.” Meanwhile, the private sector values the skills officers learn on the job, making them attractive candidates.
“We know the private sector is going to outpace government nine times out of 10,” he said.
Officers “are called to the profession,” but can fill their desire to serve anywhere, Ealum said.
“If they are a qualified applicant and they applied here and Evansville offers a job at $55,000 a year, and we offer them $40,000, where are they going to go?” he said.
City government has taken steps in the past to retain police officers. In 2019, commissioners approved retention bonuses for officers at three, six, nine and 12 years of service in the amounts of $2,000, $3,000, $5,000 and $6,000.
When asked what might help attract and keep officers, Ealum said suggested a city retirement fund for officers that would supplement the retirement plan they receive through the state. The newest officers are “Tier III” in the retirement system, meaning they receive “hybrid” retirement plans. The hybrid plan is like a 401(k) plan, with a guaranteed annual return of 4% of what the officer contributes.
“People don’t understand or know that, as police officers for the city of Owensboro, we don’t pay into Social Security,” so what Tier III officers pay into their retirement plans is “all they have,” Ealum said.
The city does have a tuition reimbursement plan for officers pursuing higher education. “Years ago, our tuition reimbursement program was effectively cut,” Ealum said. “They brought it back to a degree, but it’s not what it was.”
Mayor Pro Tem Larry Maglinger said OPD salaries “need to be competitive” with other agencies.
“There are several things we could look at to incentivize new people to come on, and retain the people we have,” Maglinger said, adding that city staff will make recommendations when commissioners begin discussing the 2021-22 budget in the spring.
“I’m looking foward to having the conversation,” he said. “... I think the idea for the commissioners to make that a priority is very good, and I think something good will come out of it.”
Commissioner Jeff Sanford said he thinks commissioners should consider “financial and educational opportunities” for OPD.
Elected officials should “maybe get some input from the police officers themselves,” he said.
“I don’t think this is just an Owensboro (issue). It’s a problem across the country,” Sanford said. “We need to do a lot of thinking and talking, but we don’t want to wait too long.
“Now that it has been brought up, you’ll start to see which direction we take,” Sanford said.
Commissioner Bob Glenn said while police hiring and retention is a high priority, other city departments face similar issues that need to be addressed as well.
“Police are a priority and always will be ... but I think we need to look at retention of CDL drivers,” Glenn said. A commercial driver’s license is required to drive city buses, for example.
“We need to look at the fire department because we have had some losses” of firefighters, Glenn said. And dispatchers in the 911 center also need to be considered when discussing hiring and retention.
“We need to look at other elements of the city as well,” he said.
Commissioner Mark Castlen said he was interested in having this discussion with Ealum and was glad when Watson brought it up at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’m in full agreement with the mayor that we need to try to budget more money for police officers,” Castlen said. “When they can go across the river or to the county (and be paid more), they are going to take it.
“I was glad to hear the mayor’s stand on it,” Castlen said. “I think all the other commissioners are pretty much on-board also.
“As far as what we can afford to do at the moment, we’ll have to wait and see,” Castlen said. “... But I’ll definitely be discussing it with them.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse