Fort Smith police chief pitches aggressive plan to raise salaries by almost 24%

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,033 views 

Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker proposes using proceeds from a sales tax plan to boost all salaries by 23.87% and begin adding five officers a year beginning in 2028. The pay boost would bring base pay up to $50,000 and cost about $2.3 million a year.

Baker pitched his self-described aggressive plan Tuesday during a Fort Smith Board of Directors study session about how police, fire, utilities, and the parks department would use the tax proceeds.

On Feb. 22 the Fort Smith board voted on two sales tax ordinances that city voters will consider May 24 in conjunction with the state’s primary election. The first tax request would renew a 0.25% sales tax that is evenly allocated between the city’s fire department and city’s parks and recreation department. Directors voted 5-2 to extend the tax for eight years, with collections from Sept. 30, 2022, to Sept. 20, 2030.

The second tax request would extend a 0.75% sales tax from Jan. 1, 2023, to Dec. 31, 2030, with 83.3% of the revenue going to federal consent decree work on the city’s water and sewer system, and 16.7% directed to the police department.

Baker told Talk Business & Politics the proposed tax extension is estimated to generate $3 million a year for the police department, with the salary increase being about $2.3 million a year. He said the “aggressive” plan is to implement the pay raise – with the exception of the police chief’s salary – as soon as possible if voters approve the tax extension.

“Ideally I would like to start it after the first year the sales tax is collected. The reality is that we may have to try to phase it in over two to three years and see how much the tax generates if it is passed. But I think we need to do it immediately, or as quickly as possible,” Baker said.

Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker

Baker, a veteran of the police force who was promoted to chief in September 2019, told the board that more competitive pay is needed to recruit and retain officers and to adequately pay officers for the risks they take each day. He said those on the force “are not just law enforcement officers” but are being asked by society each day to deal with numerous social issues like mental health, domestic abuse, and homelessness.

Also, city, state and federal law enforcement agencies around the country are competing for a smaller pool of those wanting to be an officer, Baker said. A tight labor market also means that officers have more opportunities to leave a law enforcement job for higher salaries and much less personal risk.

Part of that competition includes the need for higher wages. For example, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in early March signed HB 1026 which will boost the average annual starting pay for state troopers from $42,357 to $54,000. Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver said on April 21 he plans to increase the minimum starting salaries for the Jonesboro police and fire departments. The minimum would be increased to $42,000 from $35,190 in both departments, and begin in May if the city council approves the plan.

“I would not be presenting this if I didn’t believe this is what the police department needs for long-term success,” Baker told the board. “If we want Fort Smith to succeed, we’re going to have to make a serious investment in our police officers.”

Baker also wants to boost the authorized police force from 164 to 189. That process, according to his plan, would begin in 2028 and add five new positions a year for five years.

City Director George Catsavis praised Baker for the bold plan, saying he is the first police chief in his 14 years on the board to ask for a substantial raise. Director Lavon Morton said it is clear a big salary boost is needed that “will put the police department on a footing to be on the same standards that they’ve delivered to this point.”

“I am proud of you for doing that (pushing a big pay raise request),” Catsavis said, adding that city leaders also need to work with Baker “because it’s time for us that some action be taken” beyond just what the sales tax proceeds might provide.”

Director André Good thanked Baker for not only bringing younger officers into leadership positions but for changing the culture from a “warrior mentality to a guardian mentality” by using crisis intervention and de-escalation in responses.

Other items Baker noted in his presentation to the board include the following.
• Addition of software and/or non-sworn personnel to help better review the growing amount of audio and video created with the use of body cameras.
• $5 million portion to support a combined public safety/communications center with the Fort Smith Fire Department.
• The purchase of “ShotSpotter” software to help address instances of gunshots in the city and reduce violent crime.
• Maintenance to the main police headquarters in downtown Fort Smith, a building that is about 25 years old.