Tucson police officers have long complained they are some of the lowest paid in the state — with some validity, an Arizona Daily Star salary comparison shows.
Although Tucson is Arizona’s second-largest city, the base salary for police officers ranks near the bottom when compared to other law enforcement agencies in the state and region.
TPD has a long list of pay add-ons to boost that base pay. But most other cities have similar inducements, still leaving Tucson at the low end of the scale.
Police chiefs and union officials say low pay drives good officers to look elsewhere. That doesn’t appear to have happened during the recession, but economic recovery has stirred fears that recruiters could come looking for officers already trained at Tucson taxpayer expense.
TPD ranks 10th
TPD ranked 10th of 14 law enforcement agencies in median salary, a Star comparison showed.
The city paid its police officers a median salary of $53,643 — almost $14,000 less than the top-paying city, Scottsdale, which pays a median of $67,298.
The disparity grows even further when maximum salary is considered. Tucson officers are paid $18,000 less than Scottsdale offers at the top end, and just short of $7,000 less than El Paso, which ranked ninth on the pay list.
Tucson’s lagging police pay scale has long been a thorny issue, particularly in years when the city has denied pay raises to nonpublic-safety workers. To skirt the pay-raise issue, the city has come up with additional ways to augment police take-home pay.
From generous overtime to special-assignment pay, to perks like the selling back unused sick days, police have collectively bargained for numerous forms of premium pay unavailable to most nonpublic-safety employees.
In 1996, the council agreed to pay Tucson officers 95 percent of what cities in Maricopa County paid their officers. But it became clear early on that Tucson’s finances couldn’t keep pace, so premium pay was created to offset discrepancies, TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor said.
The first category was special assignment pay, created to pay more to bomb techs and SWAT-team members. Later, sick-leave sell-back and other add-ons where implemented to fill the void of frozen base pays.
Today, just about any duty outside of patrol duty is considered special-assignment pay, which gives officers a 5 percent pay bump for any one of the numerous duties that qualify, Villaseñor said.
Even though Tucson officers have multiple options to bump up their annual salaries, other police departments offer similar inducements, leaving Tucson at a continual disadvantage when it tries to attract or retain quality officers, Villasenor said.
He said the department expects to lose more than 100 officers next year through retirements and attrition. Between January 2008 and April 2014, 327 officers left TPD, most of them — 173 — via retirement.
Despite the often-raised concerns many officers would leave for larger paychecks elsewhere, only about 31 of them moved to other law enforcement agencies in that time, city documents show.
Many officers have been holding on to see if pay improves, said Jason Winsky, government affairs director of the Tucson Police Officers Association. Since things haven’t changed even though the economy has experienced a recovery, Winsky fears more officers could bolt soon.
“We’re very concerned that some of our very best people will start leaving for other departments,” he said.
THE COSTS OF PREMIUM PAY
As a result of the multiple options offered, TPD officers last year earned about $13 million in nonbase salary, about 18 percent of overall salary.
Most of that came from overtime ($4.2 million), special duty pay ($3.2 million), and sick-leave sell-back ($1.5 million).
Special duty pay is what officers receive for working on their own time providing security for special events or private companies. Companies pay TPD directly, and the money is added to an officer’s salary.
The city’s nonpublic-safety employees earned about $6.3 million in nonbase pay in 2013, or about 5 percent of their overall salary. Most of that came from overtime ($2.5 million), payouts at retirement ($1.1 million), and on-call pay ($974,000).
Of the 1,023 officers TPD had on its payroll at some point in the past year, 496 — nearly half — earned $10,000 or more in nonbase pay. That includes 182 officers who earned over $20,000 and 29 who earned over $40,000. The top earner took in $66,800 in nonbase pay.
Among nonpublic-safety city employees, 141 of 3,603 full- and part-time employees earned $10,000 or more in nonbase salary last year, with 31 earning over $20,000. Seven earned over $40,000, with the top earner making $84,432.
The top earners for nonpublic-safety employees made most of their extra money from payouts when they retired from the city.
NOT JUST HERE
The rise in public-sector and public-safety union influence can be traced to New York City, where in 1958 municipal employees won the right of collective bargaining, touching off enormous growth in public-sector union membership and strength.
“That was a kind of domino effect,” said Steven Malanga, a researcher and writer for the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based conservative think tank.
About 35 percent of all government workers have union representation, compared with 6.7 percent in the private sector, the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics says.
Malanga said the growth of public-safety unions has coincided with the proliferation of nonsalary pay augmentations, which he said help mask the true costs of employment.
He described the relationship as a “game” played between elected officials and union negotiators, saying public-safety employees can effectively get the pay raises they want and municipal officials don’t have to increase the base-salary rates.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who has been critical of police premium pay, said city leaders have played that game for years.
“The whole discussion about base pay for our cops is a farce. Mayors and councils over time haven’t had the guts to simply give a straight-up pay increase, so these stealth benefits have grown up over time as a way to do it out of the sunlight,” Kozachik said.
He said police should be paid higher, just not through gimmicks.
CHANGES TO COME?
City officials hope a simplification of the complex pay arrangements can be negotiated with the unions representing city workers later this year.
“We are trying to make it clearer what the base pay is and the additional pay, so that we’re not compensating for low base pay by adding premium pay,” said Assistant City Manager Martha Durkin.
“That’s where we got backwards. We neglected to address base pay, but added all the premium pay.”
Durkin said while nonpublic-safety employees don’t have nearly as many premium pay options, public safety officers perform a special kind of work and deserve to be compensated fairly.
But even as the city tries to simplify how police and fire personnel are paid, she said, premium pay will likely remain to some degree.
Winsky said the union is willing to discuss increasing base pay in exchange for dumping some premium pays. But, he said, “Those increases would have to be significant for us to give up benefits we’ve fought for.”