Pay prompts some police officers to leave Victoria department
By MELISSA CROWE and CATY HIRST -
July 15, 2012 at 2:15 a.m.
Updated July 17, 2012 at 2:17 a.m.
John Swenson came to Victoria in 2005 from Minnesota, looking for a job with the Victoria Police Department.
"My wife and I, we both agreed that would be the best move, and we were looking forward to a future in Victoria and Texas," Swenson said. "We packed up our stuff and went down to Texas on a leap of faith."
As a patrol officer, Swenson said he loved the job, the department and the city. He and his wife started a family, planning to stay in Victoria.
After three years, however, Swenson's supervisor told him it was time to "go find a different department and a better place to settle down."
Considered a "training department" by many because of a lack of incentive pay, Swenson had maxed out most of his opportunities for advancement in pay at the Victoria Police Department.
Despite the reputation, Swenson stayed, hoping for pay-for-performance raises or a change in the pay scale.
But by his sixth year, Swenson admitted defeat and began looking for a job with the Department of Public Safety or another police department. He was earning $21.65 an hour, a nickel less than a senior patrol officer with 10 years experience.
On July 2, after six and a half years with the department, Swenson left for a new job - one of 13 to leave so far this year. If that pace continues, the turnover rate will soon surpass a full typical year for the department.
"Like I told my chief, 'Sir, I love this department. This is where I wanted to work. I came down here, I rode with the guys, I fell in in love with the place,'" Swenson said. "But I was making as much as the cadet who came out of the academy - with no training, no experience, nothing. It was almost, why bother?"
Now, Swenson is looking for police jobs back in Minnesota.
Since January, eight officers, a sergeant and a lieutenant with more than 20 years tenure have left the department for various reasons, according to employment records received through the Texas Open Records Act.
The year before, 16 employees left the department. The average number to leave, for the past 10 years, is 16.9 employees. The department currently has 154 employees.
Police Chief J.J. Craig said the salary dilemma is a "pay issue in general" more than a "pay issue disparity" between new and experienced officers.
"We do have a few people leaving for what they believe to be better opportunities, and most of that seems to be centered around pay," Craig said.
While the department offers an attractive starting pay, the city is losing out to the competition after that, which "is making it difficult to attract the same quality applicant," Craig said.
Employees who have left in 2012 averaged staying seven and half years at the department, and the lengths of employment ranged from two months to 21 years, according to employment records.
Craig said he wants to offer incentives and merit-based pay to maintain officers, but said these salary structures have a high up-front cost.
Other cities across Texas offer incentives for higher education, advanced training and special skills.
"The budget realities are, I've got to be able to pay for it," Craig said. "These are really great programs, but I also have the reality of working within the fiscal restraints the office has."
Councilman David Hagan said the issue first came up several years ago.
He said the problem is that a "step-program" does not exist for officers to have clear opportunities for advancement.
"If you have one officer who's been there 10 years and one officer who's been there one year, they shouldn't earn the same," he said. "There's a real discrepancy, so there's no real point to longevity at the police department at this point."
Joseph Felan, president of the Victoria Police Officer Association, said the group brought the issue up last year as well.
"We met with city council in an attempt to resolve the issues with our department," he said. "We wish it would have resolved itself, but it hasn't."
The city of Sugar Land, which has about 20,000 more residents than Victoria, starts its officers about $8,000 higher than Victoria's - about $49,000.
Sugar Land offers a three-tier incentive pay for education and certification, education reimbursement, and after one year, longevity pay for each month of employment for the first 25 years ranging from $48 to $1,200 annually.
The city of Temple, with a population near Victoria's, offers comparable incentives: $120 monthly for a bachelor's degree, $50 to $100 for advanced certifications, and longevity pay.
Nonetheless, Victoria is not in the bottom bracket of police salaries.
City Manager Charmelle Garrett said benefits are a big component to the city's salary plan.
"Each city has to look at what it can financially afford," she said. "You have to look at the city as a whole and all 600 employees."
She said the city has offered pay-for-performance incentives in the past, but was not certain when the most recent was. The department received a 3 percent across-the-board raise last year.
But Senior Patrol Officer Zachary Caldwell, who is leaving at the end of the month to move to Houston, said this system doesn't encourage professional development.
"In seven years I got two pay-for-performances; it is not consistent," he said. "We have no pay incentive in place to pay for our current positions. It is a large problem the city needs to address."
Currently, the Victoria Police Department has nine openings; eight are for patrol officers.
Garrett would not comment on the city's solution for the police department's salary situation until after a workshop meeting Monday with Victoria City Council.
She said officers know what they will earn when they accept the job.
Councilman Joe Truman said the city is looking at across-the-board raises as a solution, but he wants to see a merit-based pay system.
"The only complaint I've had from the department is they don't have pay advancements for their tenure," Truman said. "It's on the books. We just need to start encouraging and doing it ... If they bring more to the table, they should make more."
While he expects some officers to move on to bigger cities, those who want to stay in Victoria and plan for their futures should have a roadmap to do so, he said.
"I want to encourage our best and finest to stay here," Truman said.
Victoria Police Department offers longevity pay at $48 per year of service up to $1,200. This was incorrectly reported in a graphic.