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Sidebar: Chiefs cash in as troops’ pay and morale sink

Matt Canham and Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Feb. 6, 2005

With morale plummeting, many Sandy police officers and firefighters, who are among the lowest paid in Salt Lake County, are quietly seeking jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile — just across the Jordan River — morale, pay and retention are at an all-time high in West Jordan.

The cities are about the same size, sharing similar populations and demographics, though U.S. Census figures show Sandy residents generally take in more income.

But West Jordan police make, on average, $2,460 more than Sandy officers, while West Jordan firefighters make about $7,000 more than their Sandy counterparts, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of local public safety salaries.

West Jordan Police Chief Kenneth McGuire says he has heard some Sandy officers are salivating to join his department. And many of Sandy's first responders say they're willing to go anywhere where they'll be paid more and treated better.

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan acknowledges his troops are underpaid but says the recent economic recession has tied the hands of city leaders.

"We are trying as hard as we can," Dolan says. "I promise our police officers to try to get the pay up."

Sandy's city leaders better take notice, say West Jordan's public safety officials, who remember a time not long ago when they shared their neighboring city's woes.

In 1997, the West Jordan Fire Department lost nearly half its staff to better-paying agencies. The police department was also losing officers who were seeking better salaries.

"It was a mess," recalls West Jordan Fire Chief Bradley Wardle. "It cost us a lot to replace all of those officers."

The worst was over when Gary Luebbers became West Jordan's city manager at the end of 2000. "But it was still happening," Luebbers says. "It wasn't just the fire department — we were losing people in the police department and several other operations, but it was particularly bad in the fire department."

Within a year of his hire, Luebbers had completed a comprehensive study of local pay rates and approached the City Council with a plan to stop the egression. The strategy was simple: Pay more.

"I found out a long time ago that if you scrimp on salaries in every different area that you're going to spend a lot of money training people and making up for mistakes you inherit from having less-than-the-best people," Luebbers says.

Wardle says turnover is now virtually nonexistent.

"We lost two people last year, both to retirement," he says.

Police officer Patrick Radke, who represents Sandy's police union, says his city has always tried "to be a middle-of-the-road city" when it comes to public safety salaries.

As a result, he says, discontented Sandy officers are eyeing jobs in the newly created Taylorsville police force as well as in West Jordan.

City records reveal that starting salaries for first responders is $8,300 less in Sandy than in West Jordan, where beginning fire and police officers enjoy the top starting pay in the county.

By contrast, Sandy's top administrators are among the best paid in the county. Police Chief Steve Chapman is the third-highest-paid law enforcement administrator in Salt Lake County, at $111,530 — nearly three times the average officer's pay. Fire Chief Don Chase makes $104,665 per year — making him the county's second-highest-paid fire administrator.

Chapman says comparing his pay to that of his officers is inappropriate, failing to take into consideration his past experience and qualifications.

"Am I paid too much? Sometimes I think so," he says. "Am I paid too little? Sometimes you can't pay me enough."

Chase did not return several calls seeking comment.

The city is now challenging The Tribune's request to review overtime and bonus pay awarded to its police officers and firefighters.

Sandy was the only agency, out of 24, to deny The Tribune earlier payroll records, arguing that such a release of officers' names and salaries would constitute a security threat and a violation of privacy. Utah's State Records Committee disagreed, ordering the release of the information.

Overtime and bonus records are expected to highlight Sandy's attempts to pacify employee complaints. City officials have confirmed that police officers received a $1,000 bonus in November to help offset a shortfall in their retirement accounts.

The bonus came on the heels of a complaint signed by more than 60 police officers and sent to Chapman about five months ago.

"Basically it was to ask Chief Chapman to step up to the plate and be a better advocate for us," Radke says.

The bonus did not satisfy all officers.

One of the men who signed the letter called the bonus "a little Band-Aid.

"Basically, we felt it was a payoff," he says. "If we got paid decently all of the other little problems wouldn't be such a big deal," the officer says.

While some officers are upset over limitations on off-duty patrol-car use and the length of time it takes an employee to reach the top of the pay scale — currently 15 years — the frustrations stem from a perceived lack of pay.

Chapman defended the city, calling salary parity "a never-ending battle."

The chief acknowledges losing officers over pay, but says there has not been a "major exodus" like the one West Jordan saw in the late 1990s.

But Radke, the union leader, believes it may only be a matter of time.

"I received five calls in the last two days from guys saying they are going to look elsewhere," he said. "They don't think Sandy has our interest at heart and unfortunately are going to try their hand elsewhere."