Oil economy creating competition on police, firefighter salaries

07 31, 2013 by The Advocate

Stagnant pay, lure of oil field money cited

The Lafayette Police Department is having trouble attracting and keeping officers because of stagnant pay in an area of the state where the oil-fueled economy has been booming, Police Chief Jim Craft told City-Parish Council members at a budget briefing on Tuesday.

“Now that the oil field is back up, we’re in competition with companies that off er some good starting salaries,” the chief said.

The council this month is doing a department-by-department review of City-Parish President Joey Durel’s proposed budget for next year, and most of the attention at Tuesday’s session was on the police and fire departments.

Craft and Fire Chief Robert Benoit both said they could make due with their allocations for next year, but the men also warned council members of the long-term need for more investments in public safety.

Craft said the Police Department has 20 vacancies out of 316 positions — three civilian jobs and 17 officers.

He attributed the empty slots to rising employee insurance premiums coupled with a lack of city-parish pay raises for two years in a row, but he said a proposed 2.5 percent across-the-board raise in next year’s budget for all city-parish employees could help.

“You’ve got to be able to pay them, and you’ve got to be able to give them some increases,” Craft said.

The chief told councilmen that even if the vacant positions are filled, he needs to eventually recoup funding for 10 officer positions that had been frozen and were ultimately cut from this year’s lean budget.

On top of that, the chief said, his department needs about 32 more officers for what he considers a solid police force for a city the size of Lafayette, bringing the total number of patrol officers, detectives, supervisors and other non-civilian positions in the department to 300.

“We could do so much if I just had the personnel to do it,” Craft said.

Councilmen offered no solutions on Tuesday, and there are no current proposals that would generate the amount of money needed for a police force that size.

The city’s Fire Department has fared a bit better in terms of staffing, but only because of a $1.6 million federal grant to fund 20 firefighter positions for two years.

“The grant was a savior for us in hiring that personnel,” Benoit said.

Positions at the Fire Department had initially been cut by nine in the current year’s budget, but the federal grant put those positions back in the budget and allowed the Fire Department to add new positions for next year, bringing the department’s strength up to 263.

Those new positions are critical to staff the new Fire Station No. 14, which is planned for a site on Curran Lane off Ambassador Caffery Parkway.

Benoit said that project is expected to go out to bid later this year.

City-parish government would need to find another $1.6 million in revenue to pay the new firefighters after the federal grant ends in two years, but Benoit said his department is re-applying for the same grant in the hopes of extending the funding.

Benoit told council members that the Fire Department still is not keeping pace with the growing city.

“All we’ve been trying to do is get to the middle of the road, and we’re not there yet,” Benoit said.

The council is scheduled to continue reviewing the budget through the end of August and is scheduled to vote on final adoption in September.

The proposed expenditures are $598 million. About 47 percent of that is to go toward running city-owned water, sewer, electric and telecommunications services.

Spending on public safety makes up the largest portion of the budget, with the police and fire departments having combined budgets of about $54 million for next year.