With police short-staffed, city seeks to boost pay

Posted 5/16/24

With one out of every four positions at the Powell Police Department currently vacant, City Administrator Zack Thorington says it’s time to significantly raise pay.

“It’s not …

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With police short-staffed, city seeks to boost pay


With one out of every four positions at the Powell Police Department currently vacant, City Administrator Zack Thorington says it’s time to significantly raise pay.

“It’s not easy for me to swallow,” Thorington told the city council last week, as he proposed a $3-an-hour pay hike for Powell’s patrol officers and dispatchers. “But I think it’s good, because I don’t want to lose the people we have.”

He added that, “we need to start recruiting more, or we’re going to have a skeleton crew.”

The police department hasn’t been fully staffed since 2020, but the situation significantly worsened following several recent departures for other agencies. Over the past month, a sergeant left for a job at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy and two dispatchers took jobs with the Park County Sheriff’s Office.

At the time of last week’s budget work session, nine of the agency’s 25 authorized positions were vacant. Two new hires have since come on board, and a new police chief starts next month, but that still leaves the department with six open positions: three officers and three dispatchers.

“The writing’s on the wall,” Thorington said.


Short-staffed in dispatch

The situation is particularly dire in the communications center, with three dispatchers — plus a new trainee — currently tasked with providing 24/7 service. The center is supposed to have a staff of seven.

“It’s difficult,” Powell Police Lt. Matt McCaslin said in a Friday interview. “Right now I’ve got three very committed, hard-working dispatchers that are putting in extra time and hours to make sure we have coverage.”

McCaslin said the department has discussed the possibility of seeking help from the sheriff’s office on an as-needed basis. But the city is also hoping to help itself by bumping pay.

Powell dispatchers currently start at $18.39 an hour — or about $38,250 annually — while the sheriff’s office offers $20.43 an hour, for a $42,500 salary.

It’s a similar situation for officers: A starting Powell police officer makes $21.25 an hour, while a new Park County Sheriff’s deputy earns $24.44 an hour. Over the course of a year, that means earning $44,200 versus $50,800.

Under the budget Thorington presented to the council last week, all of the department’s officers and dispatchers would receive a $3-an-hour bump — excluding the chief, the lieutenant and anyone maxed out on the city’s pay scale. Over the course of a year, that pencils out to a $6,240 raise.

Thorington said the increase is needed to compete in the current job market — and he expressed hope that it will help the city not only draw in new hires, but applicants from other agencies.


A lack of applicants

Like many law enforcement entities, the Powell Police Department has been struggling to find new recruits, being at least two officers short for the last several years.

“Not only are we not getting quality applicants, but we’re getting very few applicants, period,” McCaslin told the council.

Potential applicants “see the wage and there’s a lot of other places they can go to — and they do,” he said. The proposed pay hike would be “huge,” he said, for both recruitment and retention.

Thorington acknowledged that, even with the increases, officers could still earn more at the Cody Police Department, where wages start at $26.04 an hour.

But “I don’t think we can necessarily keep up with Cody,” Thorington said of the bigger entity. The Cody PD will soon be fully staffed with 27 sworn officers, while Powell has 17 sworn positions.


Competing with the private sector

The agencies must also compete with a host of private employers. For example, despite offering better wages than the Powell PD, the Park County Sheriff’s Office recently lost several employees to the energy sector. While the office has a full staff of nine dispatchers, a spokesman says it will soon be short six detention officers (out of 26) and two patrol deputies (out of a patrol staff of 20).

“They can’t afford to support families on what we pay,” Monte McClain, the office’s communications supervisor and spokesman, said of recent departures.

At the City of Powell, Thorington is hoping to take a broader look at all of the city’s salaries over the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. He’s included $50,000 in the budget to hire an outside firm to study how their wages stack up against other entities and the private sector.

“I don’t want to see what’s happening [with the police department] to the others before it’s too late,” Thorington told the council, which will take up the budget over the coming weeks.

Although it’s been a rough stretch for PD personnel, the department did add a dispatcher last week and a new community service officer Wednesday. A new chief — Rock Springs County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jim Rhea — will start next month.

As the department looks for more reinforcements, “we got a lot of people that are pushing on, stepping up to do what’s needed,” McCaslin said.


City sets salary and benefit for new chief

When he starts the job next month, Powell’s new police chief will earn significantly less than his predecessor.

Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Rhea will start out at $43.27 an hour, city officials say, which equates to a roughly $90,000 salary. The city had listed the salary range at $79,331 to $117,395.

Former Police Chief Roy Eckerdt had been earning roughly $120,500; he’d maxed out on the city’s pay scale after 20 years with the department and 12 years as its leader.

At their May 6 meeting, Powell City Council members agreed to provide Rhea some additional benefits. They unanimously voted to reimburse up to $5,000 worth of moving expenses and to let him begin the job with 12 vacation days in the bank (rather than making him wait to accrue the time off).

City Administrator Zack Thorington hired Rhea last month from a pool of nearly three dozen applicants. The city paid the executive search firm KRW Associates $19,500 to help lead a nationwide search and it spent over $3,200 hosting three other finalists from Kansas, Colorado and Illinois.

Thorington praised KRW’s work, saying the firm “really helped make that decision” to hire Rhea.

“It worked out really well,” Thorington said, adding that, “it was [an] amazing process.”

Rhea didn’t have the five years of supervisory/command experience called for in the city’s job posting, having only been a sergeant since 2022. However, Thorington noted the description also allowed for “Any equivalent combination of training, education and experience, which provides the individual with the required knowledge, skills and abilities to perform the job.”

The description also said a master’s degree in a related field would be considered a plus — something Rhea obtained from the University of San Diego in law enforcement and public safety leadership in 2022.

“[In] all of his interviews and interaction, he showed very good energy and passion for leadership,” Thorington added.

The city won’t have to adjust the police department’s budget to cover the costs of the job search; it’s going to save well over $50,000 from having the chief’s position vacant between Eckerdt’s Dec. 26 retirement and Rhea’s June 12 start date.