Atlanta police and firefighters say a pay increase approved by the City Council won’t do enough to replenish their thinning ranks.
“Although it’s a good gesture, it’s not going to stop the problems we have,” Atlanta Police Department Union Representative Ken Allen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.
Trying to give the first responders a boost, the council on Monday approved a 2019 budget that includes a 3.1 percent raise for police officers and firefighters. But only current officers are eligible. The starting salaries for new recruits will remain the same: about $40,000.
Both the fire and police departments say they are struggling to recruit and retain personnel. City Councilman Dustin Hillis said each is approaching a 20 percent vacancy rate.
“We have recruitment and retention issues because we have compensation issues and that’s pretty obvious,” Hillis said. “(The raise) is a small token to show that we are and we will continue to have the conversation about those issues.”
The staffing shortfall at the Atlanta Police Department came into sharp focus in an audit released two weeks ago. It revealed that APD accounted for the brunt of $54 million in city overtime expenses in the final years of Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration. Some officers doubled their salaries with overtime pay.
Regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Vincent L. Champion chalked up the steep overtime spending to years of understaffing the police department.
“We are not staffed fully and properly,” Champion told The AJC at the time. “The mayor’s office under (former Mayor Kasim Reed,) they were very well aware of this. They did not budget for it.”
The Atlanta police and fire departments currently fall behind both the local and national market rate for compensation; According to the occupational employment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for police officers and firefighters are $64,490 and $51,930 respectively. In Atlanta, the starting salary for police and fire employees is $40,000 and the maximum is $55,670.
Union representatives hoped compensation changes would make the city’s salaries more competitive. Adjusting the pay scale and giving personnel a higher salary would draw more talent to the departments, they argued.
However, the raises approved this week won’t do that, Allen said.
The raises will be given to all sworn personnel who make a satisfactory score on a job evaluation. But that don’t extend to people hired after July 1, who will still start at a salary of $40,000. Though sworn personnel can enjoy a bump in pay, the pay scale hasn’t shifted and the departments won’t be able to offer new recruits a more competitive salary, Allen said.
The raises could actually hurt retention efforts, Allen added. The police and fire departments are set up on a tiered system with salary increases that reflect years of service: The salary of a person with 10 years of service or less is $40,000, people who have served 11 to 15 years make $43,428, and personnel with over 15 years make $46,856. The union originally asked to shift the entry-level pay from $40,000 to $52,000 and to raise the maximum pay threshold from $55,000 to $64,500.
“As people get promoted, these pay raises disappear,” he said. “When they move into the next tier of payment, this three percent is not active.”
The raise being calculated as a percentage of the salary is an added concern, Allen said. The people with the largest salaries also receive the largest raise, causing frustration for officers.
“That’s going to send a negative message to officers,” Allen said, “because they already feel they’re the furthest behind.”
Officer salaries have long been a contentious issue and Hillis says the council will continue to look for ways to address retention and recruitment issues. A compensation study out of the police department is pending and the council has “encouraged the fire department to conduct a similar study,” Hillis said.
“(The study) is really going to drill down into some of these compensation problems the department is having,” Hillis said. “We look forward to receiving study and working toward implementing that as soon as we can.”
The Atlanta public safety agencies last saw raises in 2016.