FORT PIERCE, Fla. - FORT PIERCE — When Michael Harding was sworn in as a Port St. Lucie Police officer earlier this year, the department had hired one of Fort Pierce's top cops.
Harding, who was named Fort Pierce Police Department's Officer of the Year in 2011, said then he felt the move was in the best interests of him and his family.
Most likely, salary played a role, as his annual pay increased from $35,172 to $47,399.
Losing Harding was not an isolated case. Nate Stubley, Fort Pierce Officer of the Year in 2010 and Joseph Alves, Detective of the Year in 2011, also left for higher-paying jobs with Port St. Lucie.
In the wake of those and other losses, Fort Pierce Police Chief R. Sean Baldwin has proposed a new salary plan that would increase officer pay for the first time in five years.
"Our pay has gotten so far behind for our officers that we're losing officers to other agencies," Baldwin said. "Not only are we not competitive, but we are sorely behind in pay. It's been a crisis for the department. We've lost 13 of our highly paid officers. All of them said their preference would have been to stay with our department if our pay would have been more competitive."
Those losses include six minority officers, three of whom spoke Spanish or Creole, he said.
Fort Pierce's starting salary of $35,172 is the lowest of the larger law enforcement agencies in St. Lucie, Indian River and Martin counties. The highest is $46,340 in Stuart. Baldwin said other agencies also take into account years of experience when hiring, while in Fort Pierce officers begin with the starting salary.
Baldwin's proposal would increase the starting salary to $36,000 in fiscal year 2013 and by another $2,000 during the next two years. He also proposed that officers receive incentives for enhancing their value to the Police Department. For example, an officer would be paid $500 for becoming fluent in a second language.
Baldwin said his proposal makes economic sense.
"To not do anything is to lose money," he said. The department spends thousands of dollars on training and that money is wasted if the officer soon leaves for higher pay elsewhere, he said.
Because of a reorganization eliminating a captain's position and other savings, the proposal would be paid with surplus funds until fiscal year 2015, when it would cost about $215,000, Baldwin said.
City Commissioner Tom Perona said despite the city's financial challenges, he favors the proposal because the Police Department needs and deserves the support.During the last several years, the Police Department's budget lost about $4 million, he said.
"Through their efficiencies and dedication," he said, "they were still able to reduce crime in our community."
Salary scale (proposed, current)
1 year: $36,000, $35,172
2 years: $37,029, $35,172
3 years: $38,558, $35,172
4 years: $40,087, $35,172
5 years: $41,416, $36,233
6 years: $42,645, $38,043
7 years: $44,174, $40,060
8 years: $45,703, $42,120
Physical fitness: $250
Foreign language: $500 for one, $1,000 for two
Education (1 award maximum): associates, $250; bachelor's, $350; master's, $500; traffic specialist, $250; crime scene specialist, $250; investigative specialist, $250; prevention specialist, $250; tactical specialist, $250; master officer, $1,000 (requires 10 years' service, 3ree specialist certifications, no disciplinary suspensions, satisfactory performance evaluations, 20 hours' advanced training per year)
Salary comparisons (1 year, 3 years' experience)
Stuart Police Department: $46,340, $46,340
Port St. Lucie Police Department: $42,599, $44,990
Martin County Sheriff's Office: $42,120, $44,505
Indian River County Sheriff's Office: $38,950, $38,950
Vero Beach Police Department: $36,982, $36,982
St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office: $36,500, $36,500
Fort Pierce Police Department: $35,172, $35,172