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Published July 27 2013

Police pay cited as source of low morale

FARGO – They were two points away.

In 2011, more than half of the Fargo Police Department’s front-line officers appealed the results of a citywide pay study, arguing that the demands of the job should have placed them at a higher pay grade than the study proposed.

The study put them at a grade 12 with a score of 296 points. Grade 13 started at 298 points.

Chief Keith Ternes disagreed and denied the appeal, writing in his decision that he could find “no difference between my assessment and that which was reached by the consultant.” He noted that if the officers received the total score they suggested, it would have elevated them to the same pay grade proposed for sergeants.

Several former officers who spoke to The Forum recently about dissatisfaction within the department or mentioned it in their exit interviews said the chief’s lack of support for their appeal was a blow to morale.

“I think that really was telling,” said Chris Potter, a former school resource officer who resigned last summer after 19 years with the department and now works for North Dakota State University campus police. “That was a moment that the light bulb went off for a lot of people in the department that we felt like second-class employees.”

“It would just seem like the department head should be somebody that is advocating for their employees, especially with pay and benefits,” he added.

Not all officers felt that way. Former officer Andy Jonkman, who was among those who appealed, said he doesn’t believe Fargo police are underpaid and that the department “was an amazing place to work.”

“I think there was some disappointment, but to be honest, I think everybody kind of expected it,” said Jonkman, who worked for the department from February 2010 to May 2012, when he returned to his native Michigan to be closer to family and take a job as a sheriff’s deputy.

In an interview last week, Ternes said the officers made a legitimate argument for additional pay and he doesn’t fault them for doing so, but he said he didn’t find any errors in the consultant’s rating.

“I certainly want to do everything I can to make sure they’re adequately compensated,” he said.

Basis of officers’ appeal

The city launched the job study in August 2009 with the goal of adopting a new system that used more current and comprehensive evaluation methods.

Trusight, a Plymouth, Minn.-based firm that specializes in human resources issues, developed the new job evaluation system, which rates each position based on seven factors: qualifications, decision making, problem solving, relationships, effort, hazards and environment.

As a result of the study, about 195 positions affecting 754 city employees were upgraded with a higher minimum and/or maximum pay range, while 36 positions affecting 48 employees were downgraded.

Of the latter group, 24 employees had their pay frozen until the top end of the new pay range caught up with their frozen rate.

Employees could appeal their new job classification to their immediate supervisor and department head.

Officer Michael Sanden submitted the appeal letter on behalf of the 64 police officers, writing that they found the job evaluation “does not accurately portray our job factors” as stated in the city’s job description and the department’s mission statement.

Specifically, the officers found discrepancies in four evaluation categories: decision making, environment, relationships and “Efforts A & B.”

In terms of environment, officers contended that they spent much more time outside exposed to unpleasant conditions than the “intermittent” level suggested by the study. Officers said the factor should have been rated as “frequent,” or about 45 to 70 percent of their work shifts.

Officers also disagreed with the study’s finding that activities leading to muscular fatigue were intermittent, noting they’re required to wear 20 to 25 pounds of gear as they frequently enter and exit their patrol cars and often have to move or physically restrain people.

In regard to activities leading to mental fatigue, eye strain or tension, officers received a score indicating their effort is frequent – between 45 and 70 percent of the time – and requires “moderate attention to detail or deadlines.”

Officers challenged that rating, referring to their job description that states: “While on patrol, continual attention to detail in monitoring surroundings is required. Attention to detail and deadlines is required in completing reports and paperwork.” They felt the effort should have been rated very frequent or continuous.

Avoiding ‘fudge factor’

In his denial, Ternes wrote that while it wasn’t clearly articulated in their appeal, officers were suggesting 54 points be added to the police officer position. That would give the position a total of 350 points and move it up to pay grade 15, which begins at 344 points and was the pay grade proposed for sergeants.

In fairness to Fargo officers, Ternes said he believes their job is more challenging here than in other cities where line-level officers play more of a first-responder role and participate less in follow-up investigation.

But he said when using the city’s pay-scale instrument, the consultant’s rating “was legitimate and appropriate and I could find no reason to not concur with that.”

Ternes said he understands and sympathizes with the idea that officers were just two points away from the next pay level, but he said it wouldn’t have been appropriate to “come up with some fudge factor that pushes people into a higher pay grade.”

He also noted a 2011 market analysis that suggested placing officers at pay grade 12 with a range of $46,534 to $60,494 was consistent with the pay for officers in regional cities of comparable size and demographics.

The analysis showed that the entry-level salary for a Fargo officer was 7.3 percent higher than in comparison cities, but the top-end salary was 3.4 percent less than the market average, Ternes wrote, suggesting the city may want to adjust the range in the future to adequately compensate the department’s longest-serving officers.

“I certainly have advocated that the city look for ways to push that top-end pay for police officers either at or slightly above the market average,” he said Thursday.

The Position Evaluation Committee, which made the final determination on appeals, found the police officer position was rated appropriately and that market data supported the pay range.

No raise for some

The City Commission adopted the study on May 16, 2011, making the new pay structure retroactive to the start of the year.

There was no separate cost-of-living adjustment that year, meaning those who didn’t receive a raise of more than a penny an hour under the new pay structure – in the Police Department’s case, 34 of 115 officers – essentially went without a pay increase in 2011.

While the department’s sergeants, lieutenants and upper administration all received raises of between 50 cents and $2.50 an hour as a result of the study, 30 officers received a penny raise and four had their pay frozen.

Overall, officers received an average hourly rate increase of 3.6 percent, compared with 3.8 percent for sergeants, 4.2 percent for lieutenants and 4.2 percent for Ternes.

Several of the recently resigned employees who cited low morale in the department also complained that the city’s cost-of-living adjustments have fallen short in recent years, a sentiment Ternes said he shares.

The City Commission gave all regular city employees a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment in 2008 and a 3 percent bump in 2009. Employees started 2010 with no adjustment, but the commission reviewed the budget mid-year and voted to award a 1 percent increase retroactive to Jan. 1.

Commissioners last August approved a 2 percent adjustment retroactive to July 1, 2012, and last month they approved another 2 percent hike effective July 1.

“My frustration has really been with the very limited and modest cost-of-living adjustments that Police Department employees, along with other city employees, have received over the last several years, because I think that the Police Department employees are deserving of more,” Ternes said.

But Ternes said he doesn’t fault the city’s elected officials for that, and he said he also must take a “realistic and reasonable” approach to police pay.

“And that’s why I say that as long as our employees are at or slightly above the market average, then I think we’re exactly where we want to be,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528