Police chief: Low wages a big issue

With lower-than-average wages, no pay-raise in five years, and personal financial burdens looming, Rindge Police Officer Tom Horne seemed to have little choice but to resign.

The Rindge resident of 10 years and police officer for the town for over three years began his new full-time position with the New Ipswich Police Department on Monday, with his last full-time shift in Rindge on Sunday. Horne’s resignation officially takes effect in the Rindge department on Dec. 31, and he will be staying on part-time with Rindge Police until that date.

As for the reason Horne is leaving, he cites insufficient pay.

According to Rindge Police Chief Frank Morrill, Horne is not the first to leave the department for financial reasons. “There’s been a history here of what they call a revolving door,” Morrill said in a phone interview on Wednesday, indicating that two officers before Horne left for higher paid positions elsewhere.

Morrill said that more officers may be leaving soon, too. “I have two other full-time officers actively involved in the hiring process elsewhere for higher pay,” he said, adding that those employees have applied to other local agencies, though neither have been offered a position as of yet.

In reference to how Rindge Police salaries compare to other towns, Morrill said, “It’s way out of whack.”

According to www.lawenforcementedu.net, the annual median wage for police officers in a southwestern New Hampshire non-metropolitan area in 2010, the most recent year data was collected, was $46,600. At the Rindge Police Department for the year 2013, an officer certified by the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council, or the N.H. police academy, starts out with a base salary of $37,211. Horne’s base salary pay for 2013 is $38,709.

At the New Ipswich Police Department, Horne will start with a base salary of $45,000.

This wage, said Morrill, is about the average of other local agencies, and agencies like New Ipswich have less to contend with than Rindge police do with the nearby university, the routes 119 and 202 intersection, or a heavily traveled road on the Massachusetts state line.

In Rindge, uncertified officers start out with a base salary of $35,000 for 2013, and Chief Morrill, who has been at the department for nine years, has a salary of $66,100. These numbers, according to Morrill, are far lower than those of other towns of comparable population, like Jaffrey and Peterborough.

In Jaffrey for the year 2013, uncertified officers start with a base salary of $47,359.96, while academy-certified officers start with a base salary of $48,782.18. Chief William Oswalt’s salary for the year is $86,819. In Peterborough, 2013 base salaries start anywhere in the range of $41,288 to $61,942, depending on the kind of certifications and experience officers come to the department with. Chief Scott Guinard’s 2013 salary is $94,661.

All three town’s police departments receive similar health, dental, life insurance, and retirement benefits, according to information provided by all three towns’ officials. In addition, Jaffrey police officers receive gym membership and incentive-based physical fitness benefits.

Rindge police do receive more support in one area, paying only 10 percent of their health and dental insurance costs while Jaffrey and Peterborough police pay 20 percent of those costs.

According to Morrill, the lack of structured pay scales that are adjusted regularly in Rindge is a large source of the pay problem. “It’s very troubling,” he said. The last round of town-wide pay scale adjustments were in 2008, with an adjustment in 2012 only applying to employees who moved into a higher-ranking position, where they began receiving the salary that was already set for that position without any raise.

The lack of regular salary adjustments, said Morrill, puts Rindge employee wages increasingly behind those of other towns who adjust each year. “We never get quite to where we’re supposed to be,” he said. If Rindge did want to become competitive with surrounding towns, the financial gap to bridge would be very wide. “It’s virtually impossible for Rindge to play catch-up all at once,” said Morrill.

The lack of adjustments may be from the town’s political atmosphere, according to Horne. “The current environment, politically, is focused heavily on cutting expenses,” he said over the phone on Wednesday. While the town has done a good job cutting down on operation expenses and while department heads have brought forward reasonable budgets, wages have been frozen for quite some time now, said Horne.

Morrill said that the general atmosphere in the town is not accommodating to police. “There’s a percentage of the public that undervalues what we do, what police do,” he said.

Whatever the source of low salaries in the Rindge Police Department, Horne’s resignation has signaled the beginning of a critical time for the town, according to Morrill. At the Dec. 4 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Morrill brought the resignation, and the history of lower-than-average pay, to both the Board and the public’s attention. “I urged the Board that something needed to be done,” Morrill said. “My fear is that if we don’t get something together, something ironed out by Jan. 1, it’s going to be too late,” said Morrill, indicating that he thought he would be losing the other two police officers applying elsewhere after the new year. If the police department were to lose more of its officers, it would be disruptive for morale and for police response time, according to Morrill. Having a short-staffed police department, said Morrill, doesn’t allow you to do business in an orderly manner.

After bringing up the issue twice in non-public sessions and on Dec. 4 in the public session, Morrill has gotten the Rindge Select Board’s attention. “The Selectmen are aware,” said Select Board member Roberta Oeser. “We’re going to have to discuss this. It has to be addressed.”

Oeser said she had concerns about budgetary constraints and time constraints, but hoped to come up with something this week. When asked if she thought the Board could find a way to make Rindge police officer base salaries competitive at $45,000 for 2014, Oeser said, “I can’t imagine.”

If Rindge could have offered competitive pay, it would have been a reason for him to consider staying, said Horne. “I’m not leaving Rindge because I’m dissatisfied,” Horne said, adding that he had good working relationships and enjoyed the work environment in Rindge. In the end, it came down to finances.

“Every individual employee has financial stress,” Horne said. Horne and his wife, Jennifer, a school teacher, have four children, two of which are juniors at Conant High School and are going to college soon. “That’s something that has been looming large,” Horne said.

Looking back, Horne indicated that he thought that the Rindge Select Board should strongly consider a structured pay scale system. “It’s hard when there’s no plan, no road map, for advancements in finances when the cost of living goes up and you pay rate stays flat,” he said. In Horne’s case, he needed to know whether he could afford to fund his children’s education, something he didn’t think could happen while employed with Rindge.

“It becomes hard to justify staying,” he said.

Elodie can be reached by phone at 924-7172 ext. 228, or by email at ereed@ledgertranscript.com. Elodie is also on Twitter @elodie_reed.

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