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Police turnover remains an issue for city

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Salaries, staffing could be factors

By Stephen Lega

In his last report to the Lebanon City Council, Police Chief Joe Bell noted that Officer Reece Riley had resigned as of July 30. Riley may be the latest officer to leave the department, but he likely won't be the last, based on the department's history.

"This has been a problem for 10 years," Councilman Bill Pickerill said during that Aug. 9 council meeting. "We keep losing officers. What can we do to keep them here?"

"If you ask any officer," Bell replied, "it would be money."

And there is the rub.

Asst. Chief Wally Brady said an officer making $12 an hour in Lebanon recently left for Bardstown, where he is now making $17 an hour.

During that Aug. 9 meeting, Councilman Kenny Marrett said the it's hard to live, much less raise a family, on $10 an hour. He asked what it would cost for the city to raise officer's pay by $3 an hour.

Lebanon City Administrator John O. Thomas estimated that would cost the city an additional $100,000. With benefits, Pickerill upped that estimate to more than $115,000.

Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw acknowledged that officer pay is a concern, but it's one that he would prefer to discuss when the city is working on its budget.

Crenshaw knows that officers have left for other departments, but it's a problem that Lebanon shares with small towns throughout the state and throughout the country.

Friday, Marrett said he would like to find a way to get officers to $12 an hour in less time than it takes now, but he also acknowledged that the city budget is tight as well.

"Police officers don't make what we would like to be able to give them," he said.

City and department officials may know why officers leave, but figuring out what makes them stay may be more complicated.

STAYING ON

Chief Bell joined the Lebanon Police Department 35 years ago for one simple reason.

"I just needed work," he said.

At that time, officers had to purchase their own uniforms, weapons and gear. While Bell has stayed, he has seen officers come and go as long as he has been with the department.

For Bell, leaving wasn't something he thought about much.

"I have had other people come to me, but I never considered going anywhere else," he said.

At the same time, he said staying wasn't always easy. He said he has witnessed unfairness, but at the same time, he wasn't inclined to travel. So, he kept doing what he was doing. Eventually, he recognized that his work as a police officer afforded him the opportunity to help others.

"I did that without realizing it for a long time," he said.

Bell may have just been inclined to stay, but that's not the case for every officer in the department.

In fact, eight years ago, Byron Richardson went to the city council himself seeking pay increases.

The next year, 2003, city officials discussed a proposal to raise the starting salaries for police officers to $25,000, but that was deemed unfeasible at the time.

Today, a new officer in the Lebanon Police Department will make $10.03 per hour, according to Asst. Chief Brady. At 40 hours per week, that is around $20,862.40 per year. After 12 months, officers could get up to $11.06 per hour, or $23,004.80 annual base pay.

Yet, despite the fact that Lebanon pays less than many neighboring communities, Richardson is approaching his 17th year as a member of the police department.

"I've applied at several different places, but the only thing that has kept me here was my family," Richardson said.

In the meantime, he said he knows that the officers who have left have done so because they could earn more money elsewhere.

"Most of the time they get a $10,000 raise as soon as they leave," Richardson said. "It's hard to compete with that."

Over the years, Lebanon has lost officers to Danville, Harrodsburg and even the Marion County Sheriff's Department. But today, the city also has to compete with local industries for employees.

Since Bell started, the city has alleviated some of the expenses associated with becoming an officer. The city provides the tools of the trade to the officers, a good benefits package (such as full health insurance coverage for single officers) and a take-home vehicle, Bell said.

But the city has also seen that that has not been enough to convince enough officers to stay.

"We've tried everything except throwing money at it," Crenshaw said in the last council meeting.

SHORT-STAFFED

The Lebanon Police Department has 12 full-time officers (including the chief and asst. chief) and 17 full-time positions (one of which is held by J.D. Holliday, who is deployed with the National Guard).

"The only factor, I can think of other than money is more help," Bell said. "And in order to have more help, you have to have more people."

This year, the police department has advertised three times seeking new officers, Bell said.

The first time 13 people applied; only one of whom passed the preliminary testing, which includes a written exam and physical fitness tests. The second time, only five of 19 applicants passed the preliminary tests, and the third time, only six of 46 applicants got through the initial round.

Combined, 12 out of 78 applicants were eligible for the second round of evaluations. This includes an interview and, for the few being considered for a position, a background check.

"Some of them pass it [the background check], some of them don't," Bell said.

But even when they get through all the hurdles, that's no guarantee that they will accept a position. As Bell told Councilwoman Kate Palagi at the last meeting, one of the people who was offered a position with the police department decided to turn down the offer.

According to Richardson, being short staffed affects the officers who are working. Being short-handed, means more overtime and more shifts for the officers, and that also means more fatigue as well.

"It's wearing everybody out," Richardson said.