TERRE HAUTE —
As the City of Terre Haute begins shaping its 2014 budget, one of the largest pieces of the financial puzzle is already firmly in place.
Nearly three-quarters of the city’s critical “general fund” — which covers many day-to-day expenses — is devoted to the police and fire departments.
For 2014, police and fire salaries are set to increase 2.5 percent, according to contracts already set between the City and the fire and police unions. Both departments are under-staffed, according to city officials, so deep cuts appear unlikely.
Salaries for city employees outside public safety are not yet determined for next year, Mayor Duke Bennett said in an interview last week. Those other employees include members of different public sector unions, such as transit and cemetery workers, and also employees working in City Hall.
Together, the fire and police budgets, at $11.5 million and $10.9 million, respectively, make up 72 percent of the city’s general fund this year, according to figures provided by Leslie Ellis, city controller, in response to a Tribune-Star request.
Public safety “is one of the most primary things that we do,” Bennett said. That’s the same with all cities and towns, he said.
Under the current firefighters union contract, a private with less than one year on the fire department is paid a base salary of $42,230. A private with more than a year of service earns a base pay of $46,282. A lieutenant is paid $48,282, a captain $51,807 and others of higher rank $55,316.
Under the current police union contract, passed in 2011, the base salary for a patrolman is $45,453. Other base salaries include: a corporal or detective, $47,056; a sergeant, $49,716; a lieutenant, $51,725; and a captain, $53,948.
In addition, the contracts provide for additional pay for training, years of service and overtime at time-and-a-half. In 2012, the city budgeted $555,000 for fire department overtime and $300,000 for police overtime; final spending on overtime for fire and police totaled $892,943 and $543,642, respectively.
The reason for the difference between what was budgeted for overtime and the actual cost, said Bennett and Ellis, is inadequate staffing. Firefighters must be called in to work overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements for certain pieces of fire equipment, they said, noting that 2012 was an especially big year for overtime on the fire department due to being short-staffed.
“We were down about 19 people,” said Brad Doan, the firefighters union president. The city hired 10 or 11 new people last year, but training takes months, during which time staffing levels are still low, he said. “That’s why the overtime was terrible,” Doan said.
In years past, the firefighters union contract required the city to immediately fill vacancies, Doan noted. Now, city officials have the flexibility to use overtime.
“It’s less expensive to pay overtime than to be fully staffed,” the mayor said. On top of training costs, there are also significant equipment costs associated with new hires, he said. The police department does not have the same minimum staffing requirements as the fire department, allowing less use of overtime, Bennett noted. Grants also help cover some police overtime, Ellis said.
Staffing levels for Terre Haute fire stations are also complicated by the railroads crisscrossing the city, Doan said.
“Terre Haute is unlike any other city in Indiana due to the railroad tracks,” he said.
Actual pay for members of the police and fire departments tends to be significantly greater than the amounts specified in the contracts. That’s because of overtime and other sources of additional pay, such as pay based on years of service, known as “longevity” pay.
Firefighters also receive additional pay for training certifications they have earned, known as “cert. pay.” Under the current firefighters contract, for example, a certified first-class firefighter earns an additional $1,125 annually and a firefighter trained in HAZMAT handling receives an additional $500 annually.
For members of the firefighters union, longevity pay is set under the current contract at an additional $209.88 for each year of service. In other words, a firefighter with 10 years of service would earn an additional $2,090.88 in salary for longevity.
The same system is in place for the city’s police union. Under their current contract, which expires at the end of this year, the police union members receive longevity pay equal to $204.54 for each year of service. Other city employees typically do not receive longevity pay, extra training pay or overtime, Bennett said.
“We’ve got to stay competitive”
According to state figures, about half the city’s roughly 135 firefighters were paid more than $60,000 last year. Two dozen of them earned $70,000 or more and three were paid at least $90,000, making them more highly compensated in 2012 than the mayor ($87,000) and among the highest-paid individuals on the city’s payroll.
Compared with other Indiana cities of a similar size, “we’re pretty much average or a little above” union president Doan said of the current firefighters union contract. “We think we have a pretty fair contract.”
In Muncie, a city of 70,000 — about 9,000 more than Terre Haute’s population — 145 people were paid as members of the fire department in 2012. Of those, most earned between $50,000 and $55,000, with just two earning more than $60,000, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
In Anderson, a city of 55,000, state data shows 105 people on the 2012 fire department payroll. Significantly more than half earned between $50,000 and $55,000 last year, with nine earning $60,000, one of whom earned more than $70,000.
For the Terre Haute Police Department in 2012, about 14 percent of the approximately 125 police officers were paid more than $60,000 and only four earned $70,000 or more. None was paid more than the mayor. Half were paid between $45,000 and $55,000, according to Department of Local Government Finance figures.
The Anderson Police Department in 2012 also employed 125 people, about 28 percent of whom earned more than $60,000; six earned $70,000 or more. About 30 percent earned between $45,000 and $55,000.
“We’ve got to stay competitive,” Bennett said of Terre Haute public safety salaries, noting that some police officers have taken jobs with other departments in cities and towns around Indianapolis, where the pay is greater. “Most [Indiana] police and fire contracts are similar” to the ones in Terre Haute, he said.
Doan agreed that Terre Haute has lost firefighters to other cities, with one leaving for Bloomington just this past year.
“Economic times are pretty tough right now,” Doan said of the city’s financial situation, especially in light of a decline in assessed value and the state property tax caps. “There are some tough choices coming down the road.”
Expenses for the police and fire departments do not stop when an officer or firefighter retires. Retirees continue to cost the city through a state-mandated pension system. In 2012, more than 90 retired firefighters or their surviving spouses were receiving a city pension. About a quarter are $19,444 annually, while about 40 percent are $26,000 or more. In all, the city has budgeted $2.7 million in fire department pension payments for 2013, an average of about $28,000 per person receiving a pension.
For police department retirees, the numbers are similar. In 2012, there were approximately 105 people drawing police pensions. Many ranged from $19,000 up to more than $30,000, according to state figures provided by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
Firefighter and police pensions are, in large part, determined by state law and are unlikely to change, Bennett said.
“It’s a dangerous job for 20 years, and [then the pensions] take care of you,” he said.
Retired police and firefighters also have full insurance coverage provided by the city until they are eligible for Medicare, according to their current contracts. Before retirement, police officers and firefighters pay 30 percent of their health care costs as do other city employees.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org