From Left Field

    Bit of a tough night at city council.
    People who genuinely like each other and who respect each other's work got into a lengthy — and sometimes not heated but "warm" — debate over a proposal for a significant pay increase for all members of the city police department.
    Feelings obviously were strong on both sides, and each had valid arguments to substantiate their point(s). In the end, a pay increase was granted, a little more than half of what was asked, and soon thereafter everyone was heading into the cool of the night.
    Hopefully, the debate also went into the cool of the night and will generate no hard feelings and no cracks in what has been a mostly solid working relationship between city officials and employees.
    The debate came up due to the recent closing of the dispatch center at the city police station. It is expected to generate a savings of some $102,000. So Police Chief Ken Ketzler, in his budget, proposed a $4,500 pay raise for all 17 members of his department, a total cost of $76,500. Even with that, the department's budget would be down a bit from last year, due to the dispatcher savings.
    Ketzler runs a solid, efficient department, one which serves this city quite well. But in some ways he's a frustrated chief due to the turnover in the department over the last few years. It is frustrating when the city hires an officer, pays for his (or her) extensive training, and after gaining a couple years of experience, the officer joins another department or takes a job in another field, usually at a higher salary.
    A point raised by the chief at the council meeting but not thought of by most people is the number of police departments within easy driving distance of Decatur. An officer can join another department and continue to reside in his own home here, making a daily commute. In fact, that's happened here: men from other communities taking a job with the Decatur department.
    Once an officer moves on, the process begins anew: finding a qualified candidate, getting the new hire trained, then getting the new hire some experience. It is a lengthy and costly process.
    Ketzler was hoping to combat some of that movement with better pay.
    On the other side of the debate are equally solid arguments. Mayor John Schultz made no bones, as the saying goes, about not wanting to grant a pay raise of that size to one city department and no other. "We have a lot of dedicated people," he said at one point.
    Who can blame him? Would you like to approve that sort of increase and then try to explain it to your street department guys? Your water department workers? Your City Hall employees?
    Yes, police and firefighters are far more at risk than other city employees, but it still may be difficult to convince the guy standing deep in a hole on a zero-degree day trying to repair a water main leak that he's not deserving, too.
    Don't forget, council had just recently approved a two percent pay boost for all city workers, including the police.
    Councilman Cam Collier — someone who's added a lot to the council, by the way — presented a detailed study he did on his own, comparing this city's police salaries and benefits to those in other cities of Decatur's size. He noted at one point that benefits here are better than in most other cities of our size and city officials probably should do a better point of getting that message out to employees.
    Collier also made the overlooked point that a pay increase costs more than just the money for salaries. An increase means, for example, a larger contribution by the city for pensions. Other costs are involved. For some reason, the salaries of the mayor, council members and others, are tied to police pay, and thus also would rise.
    He and the mayor, along with, apparently, councilmen Ken Meyer and Matt Dyer, want to retain more of the dispatcher savings for training and equipment. And police vehicles. The city has been using funds raised through taxing for economic development to buy police cars. Schultz wants to end that practice.
    Something else that needs to be mentioned here: the mayor and others in city government have hopes of getting a new police station — the current one was built for a department with about half as many officers as it now has — and, some day, a new City Hall. It all takes money.
    When the lengthy debate was ended, the police officers received a pay hike of $2,500 on a 3-0 vote, with councilmen Charlie Cook and Bill Crone abstaining since each is a retired city police officer.