Fort Smith voters on May 24 approved a sales tax extension that will also provide money for the police department outside the city’s general fund. The high-profile promise to voters of a big boost to police salaries if the tax was approved could first be realized in the city’s 2024 budget.
Almost 57% of city residents voting in the May 24 election approved the 0.75% sales tax extension that will see 83.3% of the tax revenue supporting federally mandated sewer system improvements, with the remainder directed to the Fort Smith Police Department (FSPD).
Talk Business & Politics recently conducted an e-mail interview with Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker about his goals to increase officer pay, add 25 officers to the force beginning in 2028, and fund facility maintenance and new software tools.
During an April 27 Fort Smith Board of Directors study session, Baker proposed 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, a veteran of the police force who was promoted to chief in September 2019, told the board competitive pay is needed to recruit and retain officers and adequately pay officers for the risks they take.
Board members expressed support for Baker’s plans. 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.” 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.
In the e-mail interview, Baker said he is now engaged in the process to make his pre-election goals a reality. He also said money from the city’s general fund will still be needed to implement the plans.
“According to figures provided by the Human Resources Department on my request, a 23.87% across-the-board raise would cost $2,286,533 annually to accomplish and included benefits. This is the amount I included in my needs proposal and presentation to the Board and falls within the amount of revenue this tax is expected to generate. For this to be accomplished, the money generated by the tax must be an addition to our existing budget and not used as a replacement for a portion of our General Fund funding. Ultimately, that decision is out of my hands. I have presented our needs as requested, presented a more than compelling case to support my request, and offered assurances that we at the PD will do our part to not over burden the City budget,” Baker wrote.
As to when the pay raises may begin, Baker noted: “While the general proposal to utilize sales tax proceeds to increase police salaries has already been brought to the board, I do not anticipate making a full-court press until the end of 2023. It is my understanding that the bonds for which the current ¾ cent tax is funding will be paid off sometime at the end of 2022. That means the tax will not begin generating revenue for the police department until the beginning of 2023. I would like have a year’s worth of money ‘in the bank’ before making an actual budget request. I hope to do that in preparing the 2024 budget and presenting it to the city administrator and Board of Directors for approval.”
Following are other questions and answers from the interview.
• TB&P: If/when a pay raise is approved, what will be the lowest salary and what will be the highest (non chief) salary?
Baker: If the full 23.87% is implemented, the base entry-level police officer salary will be $50,000/year. A topped-out Deputy Chief (there are only two and neither of them are topped out yet) would go to approximately $112,760/year. Incidentally, there are Lieutenants at the Fayetteville Police Department making more than my two Deputy Chiefs.
• TB&P: What will be the chief salary before and after the pay raise approval?
Baker: I was given a 5% raise in 2022 bringing my base salary to $129,000. I believe the rest of the city also received that same percentage increase. I have neither requested, nor anticipate, a raise as a result of the tax passage and any raises given to police officers will have no impact on my salary. I am thankful for my salary and the opportunity to serve a community I care deeply about.
• TB&P: Is the pay increase 23.87% across the board, or is there a difference based on seniority, leadership, etc.?
Baker: As presented, it is across-the-board. We must be careful about salary compression among the ranks.
• TB&P: What is the annual payroll and benefits budget for the FSPD now, and what will be the estimate for the budget when/if the pay raise plan is approved?
Baker: The total 2022 approved personnel budget for the Police Department is $13,521,648 and includes both sworn and non-sworn salaries and benefits ($8,828,347 for sworn salaries, $2,354,080 for non-sworn salaries, and $2,339,221 in benefits for both). The proposed increase would bring the annual budget amount to $15,808,181. I do not expect to be able to implement the full 24% in one budget cycle but would not advise it taking more than a couple of years to realize. This is an immediate need.
• TB&P: Do you anticipate a “pay war” among federal/state/local law enforcement organizations in the near future? Fort Smith is just one of several to announce pay and benefit raises.
Baker: Yes. It is already happening to a certain extent and was baked in to the Governor’s plan by significantly increasing State Police wages and providing a one-time $5,000 stipend to most certified officers in Arkansas. As the number of people, near retirement and new candidates, willing and appropriate to be 21st Century police officers diminishes, competition for those officers and the skills they bring will continue to increase. The idea that you get what you pay for very much applies here.
• TB&P: The effort to add five officers a year for five years begins, as you noted, in 2028. When do you anticipate the department will have to gear up to begin that process? In other words, what’s the average time it takes to recruit an officer and get the officer in service?
Baker: It takes approximately 10 months to take a police recruit from the point of first contact until the candidate is a fully-certified and trained police officer. The estimated cost, per officer, for this process is near $100,000. We cannot afford to become a training ground for police officers. Increasing wages will ensure our investment stays in Fort Smith.
• TB&P: What do you anticipate will be the first sizable maintenance project on the headquarters building?
Baker: According to my building maintenance specialist, the two most pressing facility needs at the 100 South 10th Street HQ are replacement of the cooling tower (which services all environmental systems) and replacement of the loop water boiler. The building was opened for police department use in 1997.