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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006 | San Diego police officers’ take-home pay falls well below those of their colleagues at other local and regional departments, according to a study to be released Thursday.

The survey, commissioned as the city struggles to attract and retain its force, confirms a long-held belief around City Hall: that the city pays its officers below the going rate at other departments. While it found that officers have more choices when it comes to health care than their colleagues, they pay more in premiums and contribute more to their pensions than any other department, hitting those officers with families especially hard.

Those factors pull the officer’s take-home pay – a measure of both salary and benefits – near the bottom of 19 other forces in and around San Diego County.

The study found that police recruits in San Diego rank at the absolute bottom – the zero percentile – in take-home pay. Police officer II positions and sergeants, the bulk of the budgeted force, also rank near the bottom, falling in the 6th percentile. Lieutenants fare the best of any position at the San Diego Police Department, landing well below the median at the 17th percentile.

“While some of San Diego’s salary and benefits are on par with other agencies, the cost of healthcare, particularly to those providing family coverage, in conjunction with employee pension contributions results in San Diego employees’ take home pay falling in the bottom quartile of the survey group,” the report states.

However, it noted that single employees actually profit from the benefit structure.

The study, a copy of which was obtained by voiceofsandiego.org, was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office in the face of growing concern regarding the flight of police officers from the department. The bulk of the city’s departures have come from retirements, an experience similar to other law enforcement agencies.

The city’s stresses have been aggravated by its financial crisis, something that has left officials unwilling to give police pay raises for two years. A national recruiting shortage has also been brought on by a lack of interest by a new generation and the strains of military service.

The Mayor’s Office refused to comment Wednesday evening. Spokesman Fred Sainz said the office had made an exclusive agreement with the television station KGTV and wouldn’t be commenting to anyone else until the report’s formal release Thursday.

The San Diego Police Officers Association has clashed with Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former police chief, since he took office a year ago, and the cops union has tied the city and its officials into various lawsuits over the past 18 months. However, with labor negotiations set to begin anew, Sanders is expected to appear with union officials Thursday at the press conference.

The union failed to come to a labor agreement with Sanders this year and former Mayor Dick Murphy in 2005, allowing the city to impose contracts upon its members. Officers last received a 3 percent raise in December 2004 under contracts finalized in early 2003.

Among the report’s findings:

  • A police recruit who is single with no dependants earns a maximum of $40,810 a year in take-home pay. That sum is the lowest amount of all the agencies surveyed. The median amount in this category was $47,752.
  • A senior police officer below the rank of sergeant (only one in six cops are above the sergeant pay grade) with a family earns a maximum of $56,152 a year in take-home pay. That sum ranks among the 6th percentile of the agencies surveyed. The median amount in this category was $64,973.
  • A police sergeant with a family earns a maximum of $69,308 a year in take-home pay. That sum ranks among the 6th percentile of the agencies surveyed. The median amount in this category was $83,060.
  • Officers’ defined-benefit pension plan is in line with other agencies in benefits. However, officers contribute at a higher rate – 13.12 percent of their salary – than any other department surveyed by consultants. The city, through the labor negotiation process, has agreed to “pick up” 4.1 percent of that, leaving officers paying a total of 9.02 percent.

The next-highest contribution rates were Los Angeles at 9 percent; Fresno at 8 percent; and Phoenix at 7.65 percent. Many agencies don’t make their officers contribute to retirement plan at all.

“It paints the picture of what most people expected,” said Bill Maheu, the executive assistant chief of police operations, of the report.

Cities such as Chula Vista have been especially successful at luring away San Diego’s police officers by offering better pay and better benefits. The department says it typically loses between 15 and 22 officers a year to other departments; it reported losing more than 60 last fiscal year. On one day in May, the department reported losing 10 officers to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department alone.

“When you look at other cities – when it comes down to other places that pay for retirement, that pay for take family medical – they’ll leave. The chief’s said that, I’ve said that, the officers have said that,” Maheu said.

Sanders released a five-year financial plan last month that didn’t factor in pay increases for police officers. The mayor plans on eliminating nearly 1,000 positions in the coming years to cope with a budget gap expected to grow to more than $100 million in two years.

He believes he can trim next year’s forecasted budget gap from $87 million to $25 million by eliminating 446 positions that are all presently vacant and 100 management positions. Sanders still hasn’t formulated a way to close the final $25 million gap, but said that, if the city gets its fiscal house in order, it can provide pay increases to its police officers.

Jeff Jordon, a Western Division patrol officer who sits on the police union’s board, said the study is a “first step, a small first step, of where we need to go.” Stemming the flight of officers will not happen without pay hikes, he said.

“There are literally hundred of officers hedging their bets that there will be pay raises this year,” Jordon said. “Guys who have applications in elsewhere are poised to jump ship if something’s not done to move us to a comparable pay scale.”

The report compared San Diego’s pay and benefits to those at departments in Carlsbad, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Escondido, National City, Oceanside, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Anaheim, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Murrieta, city of Riverside, Sacramento, Santa Ana, Riverside County, San Bernardino County and Phoenix.

The following municipalities didn’t respond to inquires from the consultants at Buck Consultants, LLC: Las Vegas, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles County and Orange County.

Please contact Andrew Donohue and Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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