Police pay dominates at Fairmont City Council budget workshop

Feb. 7—FAIRMONT — Fairmont City Council is racing to have its 2024-2025 budget finalized in time for the March 28 deadline, but tripped over a police shaped obstacle at a budget work session Tuesday afternoon.

After Mayor Anne Bolyard opened discussion on the budget, Fairmont Police Chief Steve Shine raised an issue that is driving what he sees as a real problem to continued efficacy of the police department.

"We have not kept up with surrounding agencies and been competitive with them," he said during the meeting, referring to pay.

The issue of police compensation took center stage as a result of proposed 3% wage increases for city employees suggested for next year's budget. However, what galled Chief Shine was that the raise proposal was made despite declarations of support from Council last year around the issue of police retention.

Shine said he was under the impression Council would help him address some of the underlying issues related to pay that are harming the police department's ability to keep officers on staff. However, Shine's budget proposal, submitted Jan. 12, was declined by the City.

Despite that, after a Jan. 22 meeting, Shine left hopeful there would be some compromise between what the City was looking at for the budget and Shine's proposal, which led to frustration when the across the board raises were revealed at the budget meeting.

"Everybody gets a three percent raise and I don't understand how that helps us fix the critical need that I explained we were in at that time," Shine said. "There was no increase in certification pay, no increase in some of the other pays, I understand there's a limited pool of money to choose from but when we're one of the couple of the departments has need to help fix right now, I'm not sure what we're going across the board stuff for."

The issue of compensation is one compounded by several other factors that make policing a challenge in 2024.

Shine said multiple factors are making it difficult to recruit officers, among them pay. This creates a finite pool of officers to recruit from, and when surrounding municipalities are already offering better wages, staffing Fairmont's Police Department is like rolling a boulder up a hill.

The department is currently at 30 officers, and budgeted for 39.

Police pay currently starts at roughly $45,000 per year, with an increase to about $50,000 after the end of the probationary period. There's also added pay for certifications, a bachelor's degree, shift differential and longevity.

Nonetheless, Chief Shine still tried to find a way to compromise. He proposed reducing his target number of officers down to 37 and giving up his dream of a Deputy Chief position to secure some raises for his officers. One of the items he sought in return was a 14% increase to base pay for probationary rank, with superior grades receiving their own similar increases.

That's the point when City Attorney Kevin Sansalone threw an extra complication into the mix.

"The Fraternal Order of Police is attempting to renegotiate their contract, which provides for a lot of additional allocation of funds to their requests," Sansalone said. "How is that going to come into play with the chief's requests with regards to the budget?"

Sansalone disagreed with Shine's assertion that the FOP negotiations wouldn't have an impact on what Shine was asking for. As an example, Sansalone expressed concern that the FOP would require more police in their contract with the city, which would be a budget increase.

Sergeant Hall, a member of the police force that was present in some of the negotiations with the FOP, countered by saying they've added for ranks added, not the total number of officers to be increased. Sansalone replied the cost still increases because it means elevating the existing officers to more expensive roles in the department, even if the total number of officers doesn't increase.

Sansalone and Shine debated similar points throughout the meeting.

Sansalone pointed out that the city could end up shooting itself in the foot if it prematurely acted to balance the budget and work with Shine to figure out how to bring up officer pay. Contract obligations could undo some of the work Shine did to reduce his footprint to pay for his officers.

Sansalone added that the elimination of two officers from the budget wouldn't pay for the increases Shine sought.

However, what revealed might be the true culprit of the meeting were two comments made, one by Council Member Rebecca Moran and City Inspector Scott Joliff. When Bolyard asked the head of the fire department, public works and city inspector's office what their staffing levels were, Joliff replied he had no immediate staffing needs when his turn came. However, there was more to it.

"Every single one of my employees has a second job, every single one of them," Joliff said. "But it's the nature of the beast, there's only so much money we can pull from."

Earlier in the meeting, Moran expressed sympathy for Shine's position, but noted she didn't know how to solve the problem when there wasn't any more money to grab from anywhere.

The issue is the city isn't bringing in new revenues to help cover more of what Shine and other departments need. Moran suggested fining vacant properties as a way to generate extra income to help cover the raises Shine wants for the department but noted the unpopularity of the idea among council.

To his credit, Shine said he doesn't want to turn his department into one that funds itself through citations.

"We don't raise fees on our citizens, we don't cut services," Bolyard said. "We have a finite amount of resources. We have a declining base, we haven't raised B&O taxes like surrounding municipalities."

Despite that, Chief Shine disagreed the final problem was the city's flat revenue. He pointed to the nationwide reduction in people that are willing to enter the service, and when other municipalities are offering higher pay than Fairmont, that's going to siphon away candidates from what's already a limited pool.

"I think it's just more an allocation of resources within the city than a revenue generating issue," he said.

No definitive answer was reached by the end of the meeting. Council chose to reconvene on Thursday at 4 p.m. to allow Shine and Interim City Manager Janet Keller and Finance Director Priscilla Hamilton to rework their proposals to find some way to compromise in the meantime.

Shine indicated he was more than willing to work within the city's budget to find a solution.

"It's not an easy answer," Bolyard said. "But we're doing the best we can."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com