$1 million to go to Chattanooga police disparity

$1 million to go to Chattanooga police disparity

June 1st, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

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Chattanooga police badge

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Some Chattanooga police officers could see raises close to $5,000 while others' salaries could be frozen this year as part of a plan to fix years of unequal pay.

Mayor Andy Berke has pledged nearly $1 million to the Chattanooga Police Department -- about a fifth of the city's savings from the fire and police pension overhaul -- in his proposed 2015 budget to create a new pay structure expected to roll out this summer.

Berke didn't direct similar funds to the Chattanooga Fire Department, where union leaders have said similar pay discrepancies exist. Instead, the fire department will get a budget boost of $1.5 million to replace 8-year-old breathing masks and harness equipment that fire officials say is needed for safety.

"We're disappointed it's not in this year's budget," said Tim Bryant, secretary-treasurer for the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 820. "Some changes need to be made to our pay. I'm a taxpaying citizen as well and understand the costs, but our guys are working two to three jobs to make ends meet."

Chattanooga Human Resources Director Todd Dockery said the police department's pay discrepancy was more severe than the fire department and needed immediate attention. He said the city is committed to studying fire department pay reform as well, but he couldn't give specifics.

Currently, police officers and firefighters can't get pay raises unless they are promoted or the city implements a departmental salary increase. And because of a confusing pay structure and one-time fixes, some newer officers potentially can make more money than their supervisors, causing a rift in the ranks.

The city is involved in two legal battles with the police department over the discrepancies.

The Fraternal Order of Police filed suit after former Mayor Ron Littlefield created an officer career development program that gave patrol officers who didn't want to go into management a chance to get more training and better pay. That meant newer hires were offered training that allowed them pay increases, while their veteran supervisors were left with stagnant pay. The program was suspended in late 2012, but not before 12 master patrolmen filed a second suit.

Fraternal Order of Police President Shawn O'Brien said the officers are talking with the city about earning pay increases based on the years they work and their rank. The city has been open to their ideas, he said.

"We want to eliminate the disparity and find a resolution to the lawsuit. We don't have to sue our employer," O'Brien said. "Officers should be focused on policing and not worried about their pension and pay scale."

Dockery said a recent evaluation of 400 police officers revealed multiple unfair scenarios. Among other discrepancies, nearly a dozen sergeants are paid between $2,000 and $8,000 more than other sergeants who have been on the force just as long, he said.

For example, a sergeant's pay range is $43,692 to $61,820, but there is no plan in place for those sergeants to get an increase along that scale. For officers promoted at a higher range, he or she has the potential to make more money than their superiors and it continues up the rank to a captain's pay.

The city is currently waiting on the results of a public safety salary survey with the Knoxville Police Department before proposing the new pay plan. But the goal is to roll out a consistent plan where officers will be able to calculate what salary they can earn throughout their career, Dockery said.

Dockery couldn't say if a proposed fix for the fire department may be reflected in next year's budget, but he said it might be a more inexpensive fix.

Fire Chief Lamar Flint said he is pleased that firefighters are also being considered and the immediate expense for breathing equipment, which cost about $4,500 apiece, was initially requested three years ago.

"This is the lifeline for the fire department," he said. "We want to make sure the firefighters don't have to worry about [their equipment.]"

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.