Chattanooga officials are trying to fix years of what police officers have called an unfair and confusing pay structure in which recently hired officers have the potential to make more money than their supervisors.
While former Mayor Ron Littlefield's administration implemented a new promotion plan in 2008 in an attempt to address the pay disparity, officials said the changes made matters worse. Dozens of officers sued the city in response.
The city is still in the middle of two legal battles, but Mayor Andy Berke's administration said the city is working on a permanent solution.
A study of the pay structures of 26 other Southeast cities is expected to yield information about prevailing wages. And at a recent City Council meeting, Berke said some of the $5 million the city will save next year from the fire and police pension reform will be funneled to the police department for salaries.
"We need something that the police department understands will work and is sustainable over the long haul and that we know the city can afford," Berke said in a recent interview.
For nearly seven years, officers say, the uneven pay structure and the quick fixes employed by the city have created widespread inequities that have triggered contention in the police and fire departments.
Currently, police officers and firefighters can't get pay raises unless they are promoted or the city implements a departmentwide salary increase. The first pay increase in five years for the fire and police department came when Berke included a citywide 1.5 percent pay raise in his 2013-14 budget.
The city isn't sure how much it will cost to fix the problem, but Human Resources Director Todd Dockery estimates it will take three to six months to find a workable solution.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police is being paid $100,000 to complete a top-to-bottom review of the police department, and one of its tasks is to look at the pay structure.
The city also is part of a public safety salary survey with the Knoxville Police Department to compare how the Chattanooga Police Department's pay matches up with that of other cities of similar size. Chattanooga also is working with the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service to study police pay.
The administration says it is seeking a fix that avoids more litigation and more disparity.
"This will help us determine if we're paying adequately [compared] to other cities, if we're paying enough and to fix the confusion in how we're paying," Dockery said.
Officers said the problems escalated in 2008 after the city completed a nearly $150,000 pay-structure study. Before the study was completed, the city froze the police department's stepladder pay structure.
The report found that fire employees in general made 21 percent less than the market average, while sworn police were paid 11 percent below the peer average.
The city 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 make better pay.
That meant newer hires were offered training that allowed them pay increases, while their veteran supervisors were left with stagnant pay. In response, 29 police sergeants sued the city in 2012 for age discrimination and pay disparity.
Under the current structure the pay range for sergeant is $43,692 to $61,820. But the starting pay of a master patrol officer, not considered a management employee, is $3,000 more, at $46,483.
Sgt. Craig Joel, one of 29 sergeants who sued the city, said he had employees under him making $4,000 more a year though they had half the experience. Upon promotion, those employees would receive a 6 percent raise, widening the pay gap to about $6,000.
"The pay disparity has been documented for years and years, and acknowledgments by the city show they've known about it for years and years," said Bryan Hoss, one of Joel's attorneys. "By ignoring the problem, more and more people are affected."
The officer training program was frozen in late 2012, but not before 12 more master patrolmen filed suit over ongoing disputes in which some junior officers were promoted and paid more than the long-time master patrolmen because of the extra training from the new program.
This suit alleged there was no rhythm or reason to the city's salary policy.
Both lawsuits have been stagnant since mid-2013.
Hoss said part of the delay is the hope that the mayor's office will finally find a workable solution.
The same disparity exists within the fire department, said Jack Thompson, president of the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association Local 820. Senior firefighters can get paid more than their lieutenants, and there is no way to get a pay increase without a promotion.
The city's human resources department is studying police and fire pay structures, and Berke said the city is still studying the extent of the problems within the fire department.
Thompson said he's been told the fire department will be included in any pay changes.
Several union leaders said they believe this time the city could find a way to fix the pay structure.
"I have confidence that the city wants to fix it," said Master Patrolman Sean O'Brien, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Their willingness to listen and allow us to voice our concerns and try to understand the problem, that's not what we've seen in the last eight years."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.