Police And City Labor Group Continue Push For Better Pay

COLUMBIA, MO — The take-home check for Officer Alan Mitchell is only a few dollars more than when he started working in the Columbia Police Department back in 2003.

“The change … isn’t even enough for me to take my family to the movies,” Mitchell told the Columbia City Council earlier this month while pitching proposals from the Columbia Police Officers Association for higher police salaries.

Mitchell also said that when his father worked at the Police Department, he reached the top of his pay scale after six years.

Mitchell, president of the Columbia Police Officers’ Association, said the city stopped giving decent raises seven years ago. Since then, they have occasionally received 25-cent-per-hour raises, but wages are generally non-competitive and plateau for most officers. Police Department salaries, he said, have failed to keep pace with the cost of living.

The city has struggled to give workers raises over the past few years. City Manager Mike Matthes introduced a stopgap measure for the current fiscal year to give each employee an extra $1,000 at a total cost of $1.1 million. Matthes said the measure was intended to boost morale at a time when the city couldn’t afford actual raises.

The Police Officers’ Association, along with other city labor groups, has been negotiating salaries and benefits with the City Council since January in preparation for the fiscal 2019 budget that Matthes will propose in August. At the January meeting, the association spoke about the possibility of charging public safety impact fees for large events that require police patrols, like the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival. At a pre-council work session in April, the association returned with several ideas for addressing police salary issues.

Mitchell told the council that the city must do a better job of moving police up the officers’ salary scale, which would allow officers to reach the midpoint and the the maximum salary range more quickly.

“If you have an officer that comes here and looks and sees a 15-year officer that hasn’t even reached the midpoint yet, what is their reason for staying?” Mitchell said.

very officer at the Police Department who has served from one to 10 years is well below the midpoint salary, which is $50,565, Mitchell said. The average officer salary is $45,645. Just 16 officers have crossed the midpoint after roughly 15 years of service, and only two — the police chief and a senior officer with 20-plus years of service — have topped out on their pay scale.

Mitchell offered three plans for improving police salaries, and each involves automatic leaps in pay when an officer reaches a certain number of years of service.

The plans are:

  • Incremental salary jumps from two to 10 years of service
  • Salary jumps after five and 10 years of service
  • Salary increases after five, 10 and 15 years of service

Mitchell said each plan would get officers to the midpoint and top end of their salary ranges faster, which is what guidelines in past city budgets have called for.

Mitchell said he strongly opposes new officers making more in their starting salaries than older officers. That, he said, would destroy morale and set a precedent of not rewarding loyalty.

In all three pay plans, the salaries would be raised on the anniversary of an officer’s hire and not at the start of each year, which means raises would be spread out.

Mitchell said the plans would cost $1.52 million, $1.06 million and $913,625, respectively. These estimates are the fixed cost for the first year with all current officers.

“I know a lot of other officers like St. Louis County and St. Louis City are raising their pay scales,” Mitchell told the council. “All we’re asking is use the pay scale we have.”

Mitchell emphasized that without decent pay, the city won’t get the kind of diverse and qualified applicants it wants, especially given the recent decision to reduce the education requirement to become an officer to just a high school diploma.

If salaries don’t improve, he said, “then all you’re going to get is high school students who decide they wanted to be a cop and who don’t know what they’re getting into.”

Mitchell also said officers apply to the Police Department just to get some experience so that they can leave in a couple years for a department that pays better. That’s why officers with five or fewer years in service make up more than 50 percent of the police force.

“That’s a lot of experience that isn’t there,” Mitchell said.

Council members were empathetic but wondered how they could pay for boosts in salary.

“I think there are some short-term suggestions here that could be looked at, but for the long term we really need to plan how we’re going to go to the voters,” Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said. He recommended police meet with city leadership at some point to discuss a community-wide campaign.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters said a new tax would most likely have to be proposed. Mitchell said any new tax would have to be earmarked for a specific use, like the city’s parks sales taxes.

Mitchell also suggested using Police Department budget surpluses for raises, instead of returning them to the city, although he acknowledged that much of that money has been earmarked for police vehicles.

From The Missourian