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Town struggles to keep police officers / August 08, 2018
The Chase City Police Department is beset by a staffing crisis as officers leave the town force due to low pay and lack of benefits.

That was the message shared by Town Manager Angela Lawrence and Police Chief Jay Jordan during a special meeting of Chase City Town Council Wednesday night. Jordan called it a “critical situation.”

For now, Council members authorized Lawrence to commission a study by the Virginia Retirement System to determine the cost of implementing an enhanced retirement benefit program, known as LEOs, for town officers. Lawrence said she expects the study to cost between $1,250 and $1,500.

In the past few weeks, three officers have resigned from the department. Two joined the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office and a third is moving to Texas. Mayor Eddie Bratton hinted that a fourth officer may soon depart as well, and he said he can’t fault officers for wanting reasonable pay and benefits.

“We are not competitive,” said Bratton.

Lawrence said that during interviews, each officer gave a different reason for leaving — one pointed to shortcomings with salary and equipment, one indicated the desire for enhanced retirement benefits, and one cited the lack of family health coverage, advancement opportunities and other issues.

Compared to police officers in South Hill and deputies working for the Sheriff’s Office, newly hired, non-certified officers in Chase City earn $2,400 less per year than similarly situated deputies, but about the same as patrol officers in South Hill. Certified officers, newly hired, earn $3,000 less per year than deputies, but again the same salary as those in South Hill.

Once they have three years of experience, Chase City officers earn $2,000 less per year compared to county deputies and South Hill police, and CCPD sergeants earn between $6,000 and $7,000 less than their counterparts in those other departments.

These numbers do not reflect the overtime opportunities that the county offers throughout the year, Lawrence said, nor the enhanced retirement LEO benefits which are paid to officers in South Hill and the county.

Earlier this year, Lawrence said the town advertised for two open police officer positions. They received 13 applications. Of those, only five applicants showed up for mandatory testing, and only two passed the initial test.

“We will be lucky if one of those makes it through the process to be hired. There is a possibility neither will, so we will be starting from ground zero,” said Lawrence.

She asked members of Town Council for direction on the types of benefits, if any, the town is willing to consider for members of law enforcement.

The options she suggested — all of which she said were “very sensitive to the other employees of the town who work very hard” — include salary increases, increased time off benefits, more opportunities for job advancement, better uniforms, opportunities for shared leave, paid health insurance coverage for family members, and LEOs, and a $13,500 yearly hazardous duty supplement paid to qualifying law enforcement officers who retire early.

Explaining why the options may be greeted coolly by town staff, Lawrence noted that these benefits, except for changes in health insurance coverage, are not offered to other municipal employees.

Salary increases for law enforcement would cost the town about $27,000 more per year, LEOs could run between $48,000 and $50,000, and enhanced health insurance would cost about $60,000 to $75,000 per year depending on the percentage paid by the town, according to Lawrence.

Jordan said he couldn’t remember the last time the town police department was short four officers. “Things have changed now compared to 20 years ago. The violence we have seen over the past 24 months has increased, not only violence, but also calls for service have increased throughout the county.”

Jordan also worried about potential liability for the town whenever officers are forced to work alone due to staffing shortages. Department members could get injured or worse if there is no backup, he explained.

This prompted Council member B.J. Mull to ask, “What do you need?”

Jordan replied, “I need salaries that are comparable with the Sheriff’s Office and South Hill. I need the benefit package that is equivalent to both agencies, and of course equipment is a big plus, too. Essentially, I need to be able to get the best qualified people to serve.”

Local resident and business owner Kim Holtz spoke in favor of the town providing paid health insurance coverage for families, saying this option was more attractive to younger officers with families.

While he did not rule out other options, Mull said he liked the idea of a shared leave benefit.

“I would not be with the Sheriff’s Office today without donated leave,” Mull said. In November 2011 Mull suffered serious neck injuries when a tree branch fell on the roof of his patrol car. He was out of work for several months and forced to use his accumulated leave after the Workers’ Compensation Board decided his injury was an “Act of God,” not work related.

Mull’s fellow deputies shared their excess leave with him, which allowed him to continue earning a paycheck during his recovery.

Chase City resident Jimmy Clary said, “It’s all going to come down to you need more money to make this work,” adding his suggestion that the town should seek to annex nearby residences and businesses into the town limits.

Bratton and Lawrence explained why annexation was not an option: the county must agree, residents who already receive town water and sewer would see no benefit since their taxes would double, and the cost of a protracted annexation battle will far outweigh the monetary benefit derived from these new residents for many years to come.

Clary then suggested that Town Council revisit the idea of a cigarette tax, which he said generates more than $200,000 in additional income to the town of South Hill. “You need more money and you can’t keep going up on taxes. We’re already at the top of the tax bracket in this area.”

But businessman Jim Castle retorted that it is unfair to saddle only certain populations — cigarette smokers, wine drinkers — with tax increases. He called for any new tax to be applied across the board.

Lawrence said the Town is not in a position to provide all of the pay and benefit options that she outlined. Furthermore, depending on their family situation, officers would likely express different priorities. She promised to pursue every avenue available, including seeking additional funding from the county to bring more money to the town for the police.

Mull then moved to spend money on a LEO study. Vice Mayor Lisa Gillispie seconded the motion and it passed without opposition. Mull also asked Lawrence to explore the cost of enhanced health insurance benefits to other employees.

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The answer is obvious, if the town wants a police department then they need to have a competitive salary and benefit package. The police department is unique, a policeman may get a call near the end of his shift say midnight and by the time he finishes the paperwork it is 2 am. And don't forget the amount of time spent in court, maybe ten cases in a day and two are continued to another day, may an off day. When a citizen or business needs help the first thing they do is call the police. So, when everyone leaves and you make that call and are told the closest deputy is working a call west of Clarksville and the closest trooper is working a wreck and has another wreck to work, then who do you call. You have to find the money to make the department competitive. Criminals read papers also and they see your weakness.

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