PALM BEACH, FL — More Palm Beach police officers have left the department during the 2017-18 budget year than in any year since at least 2006, according to town records, shedding light on the town’s growing struggle to keep its public safety employees.
Thirteen sworn officers have left the department since Oct. 1, according to records. Of those 13, four retired and nine resigned, the most resignations since at least 2011, which is the last year those details were available in town records.
Palm Beach public safety workers’ high attrition rate has been the subject of several Town Council meetings this year, where council members and officials have said its police officers and firefighters aren’t paid enough.
During a July 11 council meeting, Mayor Gail Coniglio said she had recently been told two police officers planned to leave for other jobs.
“I think we have fallen below town expectations,” Coniglio said. “We are, as predicted, becoming a training ground.”
That was the fear some had in 2012 when the Town Council enacted deep pension cuts and changed from a defined benefit plan to a hybrid plan that proved unpopular with public safety employees and prompted many to leave.
The most notable separation this year may have been Chief Ann-Marie Taylor, who announced last month she would retire Saturday, less than one year after she earned the title but after about 24 years with the department.
While it is unclear whether Taylor, 47, will take another job elsewhere — she said she is “exploring other opportunities” — her departure from the town marked a significant loss to a department searching for stability: Since 2015, 41 officers have separated (either retired, resigned or been fired) from the town, including 24 resignations, according to records. The police department currently has 68 officers on its payroll, according to the town.
In a proposal that Town Manager Kirk Blouin will present to the Town Council on Thursday, which details a deferred retirement plan that aims to help the town keep its public safety employees, he wrote that there has been an “unusually high level of employee turnover” during the last several years.
“Problems with filling leadership and management level positions exist town-wide,” the proposal reads, “however, they are greatest within the town’s Police and Fire-Rescue Departments, where turnover has been the highest.”
The annual salary range for town police officers is $52,274 – $91,528, according to the town’s website. In comparison, the annual salary range for Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies is $54,252 to $100,632. The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department recently raised its minimum salary for police officers from $50,909 to $54,000 and set the maximum at $84,000.
Michael Reiter, a former Palm Beach police chief, said while the town’s salaries for public safety employees are “average or below average,” he pointed to the town’s pension system as the reason employees are leaving. He said police employees are required to contribute too large of a portion of their paychecks to “receive a lesser retirement” than other nearby police departments.
The town’s sworn police officers are required to contribute, on average, 10 percent of their annual salary to their pension plans, according to Blouin.
“An average pay system and a below average retirement program does not equate well to a community such as the Town of Palm Beach,” Reiter said in an email, “where nothing is average.”
Town officers provide security for the third-wealthiest zip code in the country, according to a recent Bloomberg report, and the average resident income is $1.25 million. The department also is responsible for managing traffic when President Donald Trump travels to Mar-a-Lago during the winter season, including overseeing crowd control for public demonstrations.
“The very nature of the community,” Reiter said, “requires its (police officers) to be protectors and diplomats at the same time.”
Blouin said the town plans to conduct a compensation study to determine how competitively it is paying its employees, including benefits and pension plans.
“Everything will get examined in the whole,” he said. “You can’t really do a fair compensation study only in part.”
The Town Council approved a resolution in July to search for a firm that would conduct the study, and Blouin said town officials are reviewing proposals. He said the study does not yet have a start date.
The study most likely will cost the town more than $35,000, according to a memo Blouin wrote to the council in July.
“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “I don’t want to telegraph what we’re willing to pay.”
This is not the first time the town has considered conducting a compensation study. In 2016, the council approved a proposal for a study of the total compensation packages offered to police and firefighters. According to Daily News archives, the study cost the town about $60,000.