Ala. city aims to make its first responders highest paid in state

By Brian Edwards Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With last year’s pay raises in effect, City Council members now want to know what it would take to make Montgomery’s public safety officers the highest paid in the state.

For years, retention troubles have plagued the Montgomery Police Department and Montgomery Fire/Rescue. Despite high marks from outside groups on their performance, police lost around 60 officers last year, while firefighters had about 30 leave. To remedy that outflow, city leaders are asking public safety and financial officials the price tag for a major jump in pay.

“If we are the highest paid public safety department in Alabama, and you can’t get to (your numbers) then that’s on y’all,” Councilman Glen Pruitt (District 8), who is mulling a run for mayor, said to public safety leaders. “We need to be the best and highest paid public safety department in the state of Alabama.”

The discussion about the pay raise came during an ad hoc City Council meeting that consisted of three Council members, the mayor, and public safety leaders. They are not only looking at officers' compensation but also increases in funding for the 911 call center. Like police and firefighters, dispatchers have staffing issues because of the stressful nature of the job.

Current employment numbers for each group:

Police About 480 officers on duty Funded for about 515 officers Grant for additional officers kicks in if police can maintain 503 on force MFR

Have about 379 on staff

With trainees, that number rises to 395 Funded for about 415 firefighters Grant for additional firefighters puts staffing funds at 448 911 dispatchers Have 45 staff members Seven are trainees Staffing funds would allow for about 58 employees

Everyone in attendance at Tuesday’s ad hoc meeting agreed that there were needs in public safety, but they disagreed on what they were.

Pruitt, along with Councilman Richard Bollinger (District 1), asked leaders from those departments to calculate the costs of running their departments at full capacity. He asked they return with those numbers in two weeks.

Mayor Todd Strange, however, attributed the issues within police to a difficult climate for public safety officers across the nation, noting that two Alabama officers were recently killed. Those raises may help, he said, but they are not the main issue.

In November, The Montgomery City Council passed the 2019 budget after weeks of debate and several amendments that increased the gas tax and garbage fee, which added to $1 million to paving projects and put $3 million toward merit raises, increased public safety salaries and a revenue study.

Despite pushback from Mayor Todd Strange on the late amendments to his budget, Councilman Glen Pruitt (District 8) advocated strongly for those additions, and other City Council members eventually joined his push.

The new revenue streams supplemented a tight city budget that many officials believe has little room for change without a substantial increase in incoming dollars. In a historically tax-averse town, that type of change has proven to be difficult, yet Pruitt, championing another round of increases, remains optimistic about the possibility of earmarked public safety funds from something like an occupational tax.

Strange said he believes recent additions, like a new community participation camera system that was unveiled last week, will help supplement police needs in a much cheaper way. It was his opinion that the camera system would do the work of 50 officers.

Still, Bollinger and Green said they needed more “boots on the ground” to answer those calls.

Strange said if they can find additional money to supplement the budget, then he was in favor of the changes.

“Every dime that you can find in additional revenue. We can spend it on public safety,” he said.

Copyright 2019 Montgomery Advertiser