By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor
Hours of debating, number-crunching and spirited pleas by Clovis police and concerned citizens came to a head Thursday when incoming District Attorney Matt Chandler addressed the Clovis City Commission.
Faced with the strong possiblity the commission would vote to approve the lesser of two salary increases for Clovis police, Chandler gave an impassioned speech that brought a packed room to its feet.
He described police as soldiers with badges, and said the public safety of Clovis was slipping through the hands of commissioners.
The comments prompted City Commissioner Robert Sandoval to defer to a motion to vote on the higher salary.
Commissioners said they would have to consider a tax increase to fund the police raises, but no matter where the money will eventually come from, the police had the support of the commission, the mayor and community members in the audience.
“Increase my tax,” Chandler said, “but don’t increase my family’s chance of becoming a victim.”
Minutes later the commission approved a $714,899 salary increase by a 6-2 vote. Commissioners Lunell Winton and Isidro Garcia dissented. The lesser pay increase would have been for $432,000.
The approved plan would increase the minimum salary of an officer with one year experience to $15.45 an hour from $13.35. The minimum a sergeant would make would be $20.76 an hour, almost $5 more than what the lowest paid sergeant in the department is making now.
Officer David Lester said the increase is necessary to recruit certified officers to a city that has already endured eight homicides this year and sometimes has no officers patrolling the streets because of staffing problems.
As evidence of an understaffed police department, Lester said there were 38 driving-under-the-influence arrests in June. There were just eight in October.
“People aren’t drinking and driving less — we just don’t have the staff to patrol the city properly,” Lester said. “I’ve become a reactive cop — I want to be a proactive cop.”
Police Chief Bill Carey told commissioners the department is short 17 officers on the streets — there are seven in training and won’t be ready for many months — and to fully protect the public’s safety he needs to hire 10 certified officers who can be put to work within weeks.
“I strongly, strongly support the ($714,000) plan. We have to attract certified officers,” Carey said.
But Carey’s plea met resistance from a few commissioners who said it’s not responsible to spend money without knowing where it will come from.
Commissioner Randy Crowder said he studied the figures for two days and that it would be difficult to fund the lower salary hike, let alone the higher one.
Commissioner Kevin Duncan countered his concerns by doing some math of his own. If the department can hire 10 certified officers now, that would save some $350,000 the department would pay to send 10 uncertified officers to the police academy. He also said more officers would reduce the $328,000 the department paid in overtime in 2003.
Even so, commissioners did discuss the probability of increasing property tax to fund the increases. Crowder, who promised his constituents he would not vote to increase taxes during his tenure, asked if the city could leave a property-tax increase up to the voters.
The answer was no — that’s for the commission to decide, City Attorney Dave Richards said.
With the approval, the commission is now faced with another dilemma: What about the rest of the city employees?
Groups of city employees from various departments said that while they support raises for city police, the raises should go both ways.
“How many times do we have to be overlooked before we are considered?” said Kevin Musick, the city’s traffic/patrol supervisor. “To give the police department this type of raise without addressing the rest of the city employees — God help us because we’re going to have a lot more problems than this before it’s over with.”
To that end, Mayor David Lansford said the commission loves every department equally, much like a father loves his children equally, but when one department is in crisis attention needs to be focused on them.
“I don’t believe anyone on the commission loves anyone in its family anymore than the other,” he said. “Value is not the issue, market value is the issue.”