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Municipalities ponder the high cost of police pay

About Tory N. Parrish

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By Tory N. Parrish

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011

Officials from Western Pennsylvania towns, where some police officers earn $100,000 a year, are scrutinizing public safety costs that can consume half the annual budget.

Patrol officers in Monroeville, for example, earned an average of $105,471, including overtime, in 2010. Their compensation was tops in the state among more than 900 police departments, municipal finance experts say.

"I don't begrudge (police) making what they're making, because that was compensation in years past. And if the municipality could afford it in years past, fine. But now we're in a different (fiscal) environment," Monroeville Manager Timothy Little said.

Public safety costs represented 41 percent of Monroeville's budget last year. The municipality faces a $4 million shortfall in its 2012 proposed budget, and cut police costs in a new contract settled in November.

Town leaders often unfairly target police departments when considering how to cut spending, undervaluing the amount and danger of their work, police representatives say.

"It's sad that every time a police officer is killed in the line of duty, people say that police don't get enough pay. I wish they'd remember that during contract negotiations," said retired North Braddock police Chief Henry Wiehagen, president of Allegheny County Lodge No. 91 of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police. The lodge represents about 120 police departments.

Monroeville's police contract, which takes effect in January, increases officers' health insurance premiums to 7 percent from 5 percent of the total cost. It includes a 1 percent wage increase next year, and offers no increases for 2013 and 2014.

Monroeville patrol officers must be on the job four years now, instead of three, before they reach the top-scale pay of $96,000. Their base salary remains $52,000.

It all adds up

Police and sheriff's patrol officers earned a median annual wage of $55,620 nationally in 2010, and $54,500 in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But municipalities pay much more than median wage when officers earn overtime and longevity pay.

Moon paid starting officers $56,034 in 2010, although patrol officers earned an average $94,168 with overtime. Upper St. Clair officers' starting salary was $47,944, but patrol officers earned an average $85,403 with overtime. Moon employs 30 officers; Upper St. Clair, 27.

Monroeville officers' average pay is higher than others because they are guaranteed cost-of-living and wage increases, Little said.

"Nobody (else) that I'm aware of has (that) in their contract," he said.

Yet attorney Eric Stoltenberg of Harrisburg, who represents the police department, says Monroeville's police pay isn't excessive.

"Really, the opposite is probably true," he said. "The officers in other communities that are not making too much are under-compensated."

Monroeville police Chief Kenneth "Doug" Cole said the 46-member department cooperated with council to save money by utilizing technology to perform administrative tasks, consolidating some officers' responsibilities and not filling vacancies.

Neighboring Wilkins projects harsh financial conditions next year and needs to cut costs, particularly in its police department, said township Commissioner Michael Szoko, who chairs the finance committee. "It's just too much (money) going to one department," he said.

Wilkins patrol officers earned an average $84,981, including overtime, last year. The contract for Wilkins police expired a year ago.

Downtown attorney Phil DiLucente, who is representing the department in contract arbitration, said Wilkins' businesses are bringing in more taxable revenue. That should help the township compensate officers fairly, he said, noting the cost of school crossing guards and a traffic light system skews the police budget.

A look at the stats

Serious crimes per 1,000 people in 2010 by municipality:

Monroeville: 17.23
Moon: 15.34
Philadelphia: 48.97
Pittsburgh: 45.55
Ross: 27.27
Upper St. Clair: 7.33
Wilkins: 19.43


Nationally

• 100,000 vacant police positions exist because municipalities can't afford to fill them, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, a Nashville, Tenn.-based group that represents 335,000 police officers.

• 19 percent of city finance officers reported cutbacks in public safety spending in 2011, and 25 percent reported cuts in 2010, according to those who responded to the Washington-based National League of Cities' surveys.

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