Police pay hike stirs city debate

    An hour and 20-minute budget discussion at Tuesday night's Decatur City Council meeting was mostly devoted to a stirring, passionate debate over a requested pay increase for members of the city police department.
    In the end, three council members voted to provide a $2,500 increase to each of the 17 members of the department. That will be in addition to the two percent pay boost set up earlier for all city employees.
    The issue of extra police raises came up as, for the first time, the proposed city budget for 2013 came into public view. It carried a figure of $7,131,597, up $275,710 from last year's $6,855,869 proposal. But the new proposal will now have to be recalculated due to the hikes granted the police department.
    Two factors were in play: a) A savings of some $102,000 from the dropping of the police department's dispatchers and b) the loss of several officers in recent years to police departments and other jobs with higher wages.
    Police Chief Ken Ketzler offered a budget figure of $1,059,763, down $2,697 from last year's proposal. In that figure, though, was a a $4,500 pay increase for each member of the department, a total cost of $76,000, eating up most of the savings from doing away with dispatchers.
    Right off the top, Mayor John Schultz strongly said he found it "difficult to give a substantial raise to one department and not the others (departments)."
    Councilman Matt Dyer said some research done by Board of Works and Safety member Bill Karbach showed that Decatur's salaries were in line with most Class C cities (which Decatur is) with two exceptions: police and fire departments, which are lower.
    Councilman Cam Collier, however, said Class C cities includes those with populations up to 50,000 so he did an extensive study of just cities similar to Decatur in size and found the local city and fire salaries to be mostly in line with the others. Collier also noted that, in many cases, Decatur's benefits were greater than the cities of similar size. "Maybe we need to better explain our benefits" to those pondering another job with higher wages, he added.
    Collier — whose three-page summary was applauded several times — also pointed out that with a $4,500 raise, other costs also rise, such as PERF (Public Employees Retirement Fund), meaning the entire package of pay hikes would go beyond the $76,500. He said he understood it was an issue of hiring and retaining local people, but noted that he would rather keep more of the dispatcher savings in reserve for such things as training and equipment.
    It is possible, he added, that the loss of dispatchers might not work out, or that an additional officer may be needed for the department.
    Both Collier and Schultz favored using some of the dispatcher money for training and equipment — and police cars, too, the mayor said.
    Councilman Ken Meyer agreed with Schultz that he wasn't in favor of giving one department a large raise and not the others.
    Ketzler was strong in his support for the $4,500 increase. He said it would bring Decatur's police pay into "about the middle" of communities Decatur's size and would help in retaining the officers he currently has. "It's a different ball game out there now. I've got guys right now looking at other places," several of which are within but a short driving distance of Decatur, he said.
    The chief noted, too, that he has trouble getting good, qualified people for new hires.
    'I'm not trying to p--- people off, but I just feel like that this is the year" to get it done, due to the money available through the dispatching change. "I have to speak for my department," he said with obvious passion.
    Schultz thanked the chief for that passion, but added: "It's difficult for me to give one group more than another. We have a lot of dedicated people (as city employees)."
    With time marching on, the mayor called for a vote. Retired police officers Bill Crone and Charlie Cook recused themselves, which meant a 3-0 vote would be needed on a salary figure since the statue says a majority vote of council required for passage.
    Collier moved for a $3,000 increase and Dyer seconded. That would put each officer at about $40,000 annually, with longevity pay not included in that figure. On the vote, however,  Meyer voted "no." 
    Meyer then moved for a $2,500 hike and Collier seconded. That one got the required 3-0 vote.
    That increase will amount to a total of $52,000.
    It was agreed by all that the $1,059,763 budget proposal for the department would remain the same, thus providing added funds for equipment, training and vehicles.