Police, firefighter pay among budget priorities

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Pay raises, replacing the city fleet and parks maintenance were the big winners when Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers presented his 2018 balanced budget to City Council Oct. 3. The $288.9 million budget is $16.3 million — or 6 percent — higher than the 2017 version.

The 640-page proposal likely will be tweaked by city officials in the coming months.

“Most of it looked like what we needed to do based on other constraints,” said City Council President Richard Skorman.

That “other constraints” is specifically about $20 million in stormwater payments the city is required to spend for infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years.

That constraint could be eliminated if ballot measure 2A passes during the Nov. 7 election. The 2A measure asks Colorado Springs voters to approve a stormwater fee that would cost homeowners $5 per month and nonresidential property owners $30 a month for each acre they own.

“We’re stuck with the $20 million a year legally,” Suthers said. “We can’t get out of that. So all these other things are going to suffer and I think we’ll expand at a much, much slower and inadequate pace. If it doesn’t pass, I can see us … maybe cutting the parks [budget] and hiring five cops or something like that, but you won’t get the expansion that you need with spending $20 million [out of the general fund] on stormwater.”

Suthers’ budget proposal assumes 2A does not pass. But if it does, he will present a new budget to the nine-member council asking for an additional 20 police officers and 10 firefighter personnel, while also adding money to capital projects and the reserve fund, the city’s savings account for a rainy day, as he described it.

Suthers said if 2A doesn’t pass, he might still offer a new budget to add five police officers.

The proposed budget targets an increase of $5.5 million for pay raises for police and fire personnel, along with other city employees. It asks for an increase of $1.2 million for city fleet replacement — that includes large snowplows and other maintenance vehicles, as well as police cruisers — and $900,000 extra for parks, mostly for maintenance.

Police salaries are well below the market average, Suthers said, which leads to attrition.

“Attrition is a real problem,” Skorman said. “They get good training here and that makes them attractive to other departments who pay more.”

Suthers said the increase would  get police only about halfway to market value.

“For police and fire, we pay very close attention to what we call the market, which is a series of communities in Colorado which we think are our competition for police and firefighters: Denver, Aurora, Greeley, Fort Collins, Lakewood and Westminster,” Suthers said. “We determine from those what the market is. We apply a cost of living factor to that, so for example, our market would be 7 percent below the Denver Metro area because of a lower cost of living. But even there we’ve gotten to the point where we’re significantly below market. We’d like to get them the rest of the way next year; I’m not sure we can do that if 2A doesn’t pass.”

City fleet is aging

Lt. Howard Black, public information officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department, said any raise is a step toward retaining officers.

“We appreciate all the support from the mayor’s office and believe any step to move our officers closer to market is a positive,” Black said in an email. “Policing is a difficult job, and our community has a vested interest in retaining experienced officers, so any incentive for those who choose this line of work is important.”

Suthers said pay raises would also affect civilian employees.

“There is some civilian compensation in there, but that’s like a four-year plan to get to market,” he said.

Black said he realizes it will take several years to update the current city fleet, not only for the police but also the street department and parks division.

“Our fleet is safe and fully equipped with technology and emergency equipment,” Black said. “However, the mileage continues to climb.”

Suthers said the average age of a vehicle in the city’s fleet is 16 years.

“We’re hoping to reduce it to 11 within four years,” he said. “That means adding about $1 million a year. We can do it in this budget; whether we can increase that may depend, once again, whether 2A passes. We’d like to be, in four years, something like $5.2 [million].”

Black said the mayor and Police Chief  Pete Carey agree that 100 cops need to be added over the next several years to reduce response times and ensure police officer safety.

Suthers said police response times are 11.5 minutes and the goal is 8 minutes. There are 14 police officers for every 10,000 citizens and Suthers said it should be at 17 or 18 per 10,000.

The parks budget is $45 million — including golf courses, Pikes Peak and the city cemetery — and Skorman would like to see it even higher.

“If 2A passes, I have the understanding we’d add another $800,000 in park capital,” he said. “That’s always a priority of mine.”

Suthers also wants it to increase.

“We’re still $8 or $9 million below the general fund level of pre-recession,” he said. “This is the largest increase in park maintenance since I’ve been mayor.”