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City police struggle to compete with law enforcement salaries

By Staff | Dec 27, 2013

Retaining members of its police force is a difficult task for the City of Rugby.

The Rugby Police Department is currently seeking a fourth officer under Chief John Rose following the resignation of one officer, who took a job as a sheriff’s deputy with Pierce County.

Higher wages in the surrounding county is just one obstacle facing Rugby-sized cities around North Dakota. Cities and counties in the heart of the Bakken oil boom are attracting applicants with astronomical wages, in comparison.

The city added an officer position early in 2013 based on the nearly completed comprehensive plan, which calls for one officer (including a chief) for every 600 citizens. Rose hopes to have his department’s most recent opening filled soon, but knows he can easily be outbid by competitors.

“We just flat out can’t compete,” said Rose, referring to departments in western North Dakota paying officers more than $50,000. Rose, himself, made $23.23 per hour this year, while his sergeant made $19.18 and the remaining three officers between $15.88 and $16.52.

The Pierce County sheriff made $21.88, and the deputy wage of $17.79 was nearly $2 higher than its police counterpart’s starting figure.

Ward 3 representative Jim Hoffert, chairman of the public safety committee, said the city council is aware of the issue.

“First of all, we recognize that this is an entry-level position and our pool of candidates that we hire from are typically those who have just completed the law enforcement training academy,” Hoffert said. “At the end of the day, we almost accept that we’re going to have some turnover because of the nature of the position.”

Hoffert said Rugby can’t compete with Minot wages or booming Stanley’s, but the council looks at salary schedules for similar-sized cities, including neighbors like Bottineau and Harvey.

“We have what we believe are pretty good salary schedules in place and there’s annual raises built into those salary schedules,” Hoffert said. “I suppose, on the other hand, we’re mindful of the taxpayers’ obligations each time. … The problem with averages would be some of the cities pay more to health insurance and other benefits.

“The public, obviously, is concerned, but we want to provide quality police service in our community and we don’t want to overburden the staff, but we don’t want to burden the taxpayer either.”

Hoffert believes the city made the right move of adding a fifth member to the police force to outpace the current population with foreseeable population growth. Rugby’s population is roughly 3,000. The 2013 wage for an officer in Grafton (pop. about 4,300) was 14 cents less than in Rugby. Harvey (pop. about 1,815) had a starting wage 23 cents less than in Rugby. A Bottineau County deputy made 47 cents more per hour than in Rugby. Experience and levels of responsibility can impact these figures. Some salaries can be found at the North Dakota League of Cities and North Dakota Association of Counties websites. All city and county law enforcement salaries are public information.

Money aside, Rose does feel his department has advantages over working for the county and other departments. Rugby pays overtime, but the officers do have set shifts and are not on call. That can be enticing for applicants with families.

“Our call volume would be a little bit higher,” Rose said. “(The sheriff’s department is) doing different things. … We do get a lot of different applicants and they know the difference.”

With Rugby growing, Hoffert said the topic will be visited often by his committee and the city council.

“I don’t think the pool of candidates is crashing down the door to get to Rugby, North Dakota, so we might have to consider more in that salary range to entice or keep a quality police force,” Hoffert said.

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