Police Want 15 Percent Raises

WHEELING – Members of Wheeling’s police officers’ union are seeking a 15-percent pay increase to combat what they term an “alarming” rate of turnover within the department, as the city has seen 19 officers leave the force in the past three years.

In addition to the pay raise, the officers are asking for fully-paid health benefits and an additional $2 per hour in hazard pay to reflect the dangers and demands of the job.

“As our working conditions are inherently different from other occupations within the city … we would request that our pay and benefits package should also reflect this,” Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 members wrote in a letter to Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron.

It seems unlikely the officers will get what they’re requesting. City Council won’t vote on the 2014-15 budget for another two weeks, but Herron’s proposed spending plan doesn’t include any employee raises, and the city may raise health insurance deductibles after learning it would cost taxpayers an additional $580,000 to maintain current benefits.

But the union argues changes are needed to improve officer retention with recruitment of new candidates at an all-time low and a police force where one-third of its officers have less than five years’ experience.

The 19 officers who have left in the last three years don’t include those who have retired with 20 or more years of service, FOP members said. The union’s letter blames less-than-competitive wages as the most common reason for departure.

Annual salaries for Wheeling’s rank-and-file officers range from $35,180 for a patrolman to $44,900 for a lieutenant, and like other city employees, officers contribute 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums. In comparison, Morgantown pays its officers of those ranks $37,790 to $49,088 and offers better health benefits, FOP members said.

In Parkersburg, starting salaries and health benefits are comparable, but officers receive an additional 30 cents per hour in longevity pay for each year they remain on the force.

Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said vacancies have strained his department’s overtime budget, which was about 80 percent depleted as of the midway point of the fiscal year Dec. 31. There are seven unfilled positions on the force, and West Virginia State Police’s new “lateral transfer” policy – accepting police officers who already are certified into a shortened training program – could make matters worse.

The starting pay for a state trooper in West Virginia is about $44,700, more than $9,000 higher than that of a Wheeling patrolman.

“I may lose three more people to the State Police, and that’s very concerning. … The primary motivating factor is money,” Schwertfeger said.

Though Schwertfeger agrees retention is a concern, he doesn’t consider Wheeling’s situation to be significantly worse than most. He said police officers not just in Wheeling but around West Virginia are “grossly underpaid” considering the nature of the work, and he can’t blame them when they seek other opportunities.

“When you think about what these guys do, the hours, and on Christmas, Thanksgiving … ,” Schwertfeger said. “What can I do other than support them to try to better themselves?”

Herron did not return a call Monday seeking comment.