ELKHART — City police officers will probably not see much of a bump in pay, even though their salaries lag behind several other area departments.
A new study that compares police pay at the Elkhart Police Department with 15 other Indiana agencies shows entry level pay for Elkhart police ranked ninth, with a starting salary at $43,067.
The survey included 10 local agencies and other police departments similar in size to Elkhart’s.
The study was prepared by the Elkhart Police Department, according to Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore.
Other departments with higher starting salaries included Mishawaka at $47,320, St. Joseph County at $44,075 and South Bend police at $43,180.
Elkhart moves up in the rankings when looking at pay levels beginning in the second year of employment. Elkhart pays $46,252 to officers entering their second years, while Mishawaka was at the top with $52,033.
Possibly the most striking statistic that jumped out of the 45 pages of facts was the percentage of salary that goes to insurance.
According to the study, 18.8 percent of the salary for a first-year officer in Elkhart goes toward insurance, which is more than any of the other 15 agencies.
The average portion of salary that goes toward insurance among the 16 departments was 6.6 percent. Mishawaka, St. Joseph and South Bend were all less than 4 percent. Elkhart County ranked sixth at 5.3 percent, according to the study.
Councilman Brian Dickerson, who requested a study be done last year but said he had not seen the new data, said low pay is the top complaint he hears from police, as well as firefighters.
He said he firmly believes pay is hurting the city’s chances of hiring candidates.
“When you look at the pay for officers after the cost of insurance for their families, there’s not much left to live on,” Dickerson said.
Moore recently played down the chances for significant pay hikes in 2015.
Moore said during an Aug. 22 news conference that a shrinking level of revenue expected for 2015 won’t make it possible to significantly elevate pay for police.
Moore pointed to the continuing impact of state tax caps that have reduced property tax revenues.
He also said the city council’s decision to phase out compact fees this year will leave the city with less money next year.
Compact sewer revenue will eventually be replaced with new tax revenue generated from annexation, but that money won’t begin to flow into city coffers until sometime in 2016, Moore said.
“Let us not be spendthrifts in 2015 and find ourselves in a hole when we wake up Jan. 1, 2016,” Moore said. “So we’re being very, very careful.”
Moore declined to say how much of a raise, if any, police officers would see under his budget plan. He said those details will come to light when his 2015 plan is unveiled in September.
The city council will begin reviewing Moore’s 2015 budget Sept. 16.
Meanwhile, police have struggled to fill vacancies. The 2014 department budget was approved to fund about 120 people. The department recently had as many as 10 vacancies.
Moore admitted the staffing shortage has had some impact on patrols, but said police are still able to respond quickly to calls and emergencies.
Concerns about police pay have been debated for years.
Last year, the council provided a $1,000 bump in pay in addition to the 2.5 percent hike all city workers received.
The disparity in pay between Mishawaka and Elkhart is often highlighted as a concern, since an Elkhart officer can potentially see an $8,000 raise at the neighboring department just 10 miles away after one year of service.
Vicci Moore, director of human resources for the city of Elkhart, said the city has an expensive insurance program.
The city has implemented some changes aimed at reducing costs, including health management programs, she said.
She said the city has had little luck shopping for alternatives.
“Every year our broker goes out and puts the information out for proposals, and we look to find anyone who will find us a better proposal, but nothing really happens that way. They’re pretty much coming in the same,” she said.
Insurance, she said, is a personal expense.
“The fact it comes out of their paycheck — employees have a tendency to perceive that as a reduction in their pay,” Vicci Moore said.
She said the city’s circumstances are partially the result of an older employee pool, which she said is common with government.
Councilman David Henke said he believes policies could be tightened by getting away from what he called “a terrible history of overuse.”
Asked about efforts to improve the city health plan, Mayor Moore said it is “constant, but complicated.”
Attempts by The Truth to contact a representative of city police union for comment were unsuccessful.