EMERGENCY EXIT: Police And Firefighters Leaving Aurora Jobs For Denver At An Alarming Rate

AURORA, CO — A growing number of former Aurora cops and firefighters are driving a bit farther west each morning, and that’s sowing anxiety among the city’s top public safety officials.

Aurora cops and firefighters are jumping ship to work in Denver at an unprecedented rate in 2019, according to employment data outlined at a recent city meeting.

Nearly three dozen cops and firefighters left their respective departments in the first seven months of this year.

“In the last two months with just police and fire we’ve seen kind of a mass exodus,” City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz said at a council committee meeting in July.

In June alone, 12 Aurora firefighters left the department for Denver, according to Dianna Giordano, director of human resources for the city. Seven other Aurora firefighters left the department for various reasons in the first five months of the year.

“We do have an increased percentage of employees that are leaving for another job,” she told committee members last month.

Aurora fire expects to lose 33 firefighters in 2019, according to city data. That equates to the total number of departures in 2018 and 2017 combined.

Aurora police are on track to lose slightly more than 30 cops this year, which is about in line with the number of annual departures in recent years, data show. A total of 14 Aurora cops left the department — 11 for another job — in the first five months of the year.

And those turnover numbers don’t include retirements, according to Giordano. She said Aurora police and fire average about 15 and 10 retirements, respectively, per year.

But Giordano said the turnover rates for the city police and fire forces — expected to be about 4 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, by the end of the 2019 — are still well below the average among all city jobs.

Several of the former Aurora fire workers told Fire Chief Fernando Gray in exit interviews that they wanted to join a larger department with more “career advancement” opportunities. The departing workers also mentioned Denver’s better starting salary, and the Denver Fire Department’s new fast-track lateral academy for fire workers with previous experience.

Denver Fire held its first-ever lateral academy earlier this year, according to Andrea Webber, a records administrator for Denver’s Department of Public Safety. Of the 24 people who graduated from the new academy in June, 11 were from Aurora, Webber said.

“They left because of money,” Sean Moran, president of the local firefighters union, said. “When it comes down to it, people go where they’re getting paid appropriately for their services.”

The current starting salary for an Aurora firefighter is $47,203, Giordano said. That’s about $10,000 less than the entry-level salary in Denver. Rookie Aurora firefighters will, however, make about $4,000 a year more starting in 2020, according to Giordano.

Starting wages are significantly higher for lateral recruits who come to either department — Aurora or Denver — with various levels of prior experience and successfully complete the academy.

Firefighters in Denver also progress through their steps faster than fire personnel in Aurora, according to Moran. After four years, firefighters in Denver are earning about $88,000, whereas their Aurora counterparts are raking in about $69,000.

In a statement, Gray said departures are a part of doing business in any organization, and vowed to double down on recruitment efforts.

“Attrition is a reality of any organization both through retirements and other separations,” he wrote in an email. “We will continue to … reinforce the fact that Aurora Fire Rescue is where people can make a difference for their entire career.”

Within the Aurora police department, five officers had departed for Denver as of mid-July, according to Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz.

In exit interviews, four of the departing Aurora cops told Metz they wanted more financial stability and better benefits.

“Three of the five that I spoke with teared up when talking about their departure,” Metz said. “They did not want to leave but … from a financial standpoint, being able to take care of their families and plan for the future, that was a decision that they had to make.”

The entry-level salary for an Aurora cop with no experience is $55,324, according to city documents. That wage goes up about $13,000 for lateral recruits who come to the department with at least three years of experience.

In Denver, rookie cops earn about $58,000 a year while in the academy, and about $5,000 more upon graduating, according to recruitment materials. Recruits who come to the department with at least two years of experience can net $75,000 a year.

Like firefighters, Denver officers also move through their pay steps faster than their peers in Aurora, Metz said.

Each of the cops who recently left Aurora for Denver also told Metz that stronger pension options in the state capital played a significant role in their decision to elope.

Judy Lutkin, president of the Aurora Police Association, said a weak pension structure in Aurora is a constant complaint among the Aurora rank and file.

“Denver has better pay and better benefits, and the biggest issue with police is our retirement,” she said.

Last fall, the city narrowly avoided a ballot measure that would have asked voters to allow Aurora cops to move from a locally-controlled, defined contribution pension plan to a more robust, statewide defined benefit agreement. The city ultimately recommended to increase pay and time off while remaining on the local plan, instead of transitioning to the statewide pension plan, known as the Fire and Police Pension Association of Colorado, or FPPA. Aurora Fire, as well as both Denver Police and Fire, currently use the plan.

Lutkin said the current agreement makes it difficult for Aurora police to both recruit new officers and retain veterans.

That hurdle has made it difficult for recruiters to satisfy the city’s long-standing staffing target of having two police officers per 1,000 residents, Lutkin said.

The department currently boasts 703 commissioned officers, though a recent academy class will soon boost that number to about 730. And even with a dozen lateral officers ready to soon hit the street, retirements will make hitting the two-per-1,000 requirement at the end of the year a challenge, Lutkin said.

“We have a lot of people leaving, and we’re not quite keeping up with the number of people leaving vs. the people coming in,” she said. “We’re still short.”

Metz said he’s concerned that the five new Denver cops from Aurora could spread the word among their former colleagues at APD about the benefits of working in Denver.

“Frankly, I’m not interested in building a farm team for the Denver Police Department,” Metz said.

Despite not losing any Aurora cops to Denver in the previous five years to this year, a total of 20 Aurora cops applied to join DPD earlier this year, though only the aforementioned five made the final cut. The quintet of Aurora officers comprised more than a quarter of Denver’s overall lateral academy class this spring.

But the possibility of larger lateral applicant pools is swelling, according to Metz.

“My concern right now is over the next few months and over the next year or so, the potential for losing more I think is there,” he said.

Moran, too, said the germ of leaving the department is primed to blossom in the coming months.

“There are people looking out the window going, ‘What do we have next door?’ when they may not have been doing that before,” he said.

And Denver may roll out yet another lateral academy next month, pending budget approval, according to Webber with Denver’s Public Safety Department.

Lutkin said Aurora cops are natural targets for Denver recruiters, who are just now coming out of a standing hiring freeze and looking to nab applicants who are versed in local geography and state statutes.

“Aurora officers know state laws and they know the general area because the streets are similar or, in many cases, the same,” she said. “So of course Denver is going to want to pull our people over. They’re already trained and can hit the street quickly.”

Lutkin, whose two daughters are Denver police officers, said Aurora officers regularly ask her about what working for Denver police entails.

Aurora politicos lamented the recent losses and expressed concerns regarding the viability of training Aurora cops and firefighters only to watch them leave the city for lucrative positions elsewhere.

“That’s not sustainable,” City Councilwoman Marsha Berzins said of the recent losses. “We want people to say, ‘Hey, I want to go to Aurora because they do this, this and this,’ not because, ‘I want to just go get trained and leave.’”

The average cost of training an Aurora firefighter is between $100,000 and $150,000, according to Moran. Those numbers do not include paramedic training, which costs the city approximately $100,000 per firefighter, he said. The city has required all new firefighters to become trained paramedics since 2005.

Training new recruits to replace the dozen firefighters who recently skipped across the municipal line will cost the city significantly more in the long run due to cost-of-living increases and inflation, Moran said.

“It’s a bad business practice to lose employees and say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to replace them,’” he said. “It’s going to be more expensive in today’s dollars vs. 10 years ago dollars to train new individuals, and the salaries have gone up exponentially, too.”

Training Aurora police officers is also an expensive venture, officials said. The cost of training an Aurora police officer is approximately $127,000, according to Lutkin.

Hiltz, who currently serves as chairwoman of the safety committee, suggested the city pursue better pay, benefits and amenities in an effort to keep public safety personnel from seeking work outside city limits.

“We can only culture our way out of so many problems,” she said. “At some point, a positive attitude isn’t going to be enough to pay your bills, or to make your family not worry about your health and safety.”

Lutkin called on city council to increase pay and relinquish Aurora cops to the statewide benefit plan.

“City council could help out a lot if they just allowed officers to a have defined benefits,” she said. “I think it does have an impact on morale somewhat to have officers in Denver paid more when we’re doing he exact same job.”

Metz echoed.

“It’s disheartening when I’m seeing folks leaving for Denver,” he said. “I get it when people leave and move — that’s a lifestyle change and they decide that. But it’s different when somebody stays in the home that they’re in and just turns left instead of right coming to work.”

In the meantime, Aurora’s human resources department said its trying to button-up exit interviews to record more data from departing cops, and possibly weave that information into future policy.

But barring any foundational changes to pay or pensions, Lutkin said officers will likely continue to hop across Yosemite or move into the private sector.

“If we stay where we’re at, we’re going to continue to lose officers to Denver,” Lutkin said. “And private sector people can make $100,000 a year and not be shot at.”

From The Aurora Sentinel