By Chelle Delaney
Whenever he can, Tucumcari Police Chief Larry Ham likes to make a point of preaching a gospel that well paid officers stay put.
Since April of 2006, two officers have left the department for better paying jobs, and another was called up for duty in Iraq, Ham said.
Overall, the department is down five officers and Ham said that in a few weeks he suspects that he’ll lose another officer to another police department that pays better.
At stake, Ham says is the department’s ability to hire and keep officers on the force and provide public safety.
“We won’t be able to have a graveyard shift,” in the next couple of weeks, if the officer takes the job, Ham said.
Fully staffed, the department should have 16 officers, including the chief, deputy chief and detective.
The 2006-2007 budget for the 16 officers is $519,085. Ham would like to see that sum increased by at least 20 percent.
Fewer officers means that it takes longer to respond to calls, a higher crime rate, more money spent on training, increases in overtime pay and less time for crime prevention activities, Ham said.
While DWI saturation patrols and check points are routinely called for by the state, it has been more than a year since the department has had enough manpower to conduct a checkpoint.
“All of New Mexico is down 2,000 officers,” Ham said, “and it’s hard to compete when other police departments are paying $3 and $4 more to start, and signing bonuses. Hobbs is paying a $5,000 signing bonus.”
Ham’s latest message was a memo to Clara Rey, interim city manager, and the five members of the City Commission.
In Ham’s memo, he said a major tax bill, House Bill 981 – passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Richardson – will allow for a .25 gross tax receipts referendum by municipalities. While it’s allowed to be used for other purposes, Ham requested that if it were put to a vote in Tucumcari and passed, the funds “be made available, exclusively” to the police department.
Rey said the city’s budget has been limited over the past several years and that the police department’s budget would be addressed in upcoming budget workshop sessions scheduled later this month.
Earlier this year, Ham made a PowerPoint presentation entitled, “A Look at a Crisis,” and presented it to city officials and the commission asking for more funds.
Points made by Ham are that the city is not competitive because there is no incentive package, competitive pay for experience, funding for recruitment and viable step pay plan.
Highlighting the April 1 issue of the Albuquerque Journal, where three ads from the police departments in Roswell, in Los Lunas and another from Washington state, Deputy Police Chief Ron Haley said all were paying higher salaries than Tucumcari can offer.
Presently, the starting salary for an officer is $10 per hour, Ham said. This compares to $13.66 per hour in Roswell and $12.25 Los Lunas and $13.50 in Espanola, according to advertisements in newspapers and a state agency newsletter.
Over the past five years, 18 officers have left the department, often for better pay at other agencies, Ham said. Several have gone about a mile down the road to trade in their blues for the black and grey uniforms of the New Mexico State Police department where the pay is higher.
One of his biggest frustrations, Ham said, is that when the department recruits and trains officers who then leave, the city loses money, time and time again.
The total cost to train a new police recruit is $54,402.62, Ham said.
If that’s multiplied by the 18 officers who have left, Ham said, that equals about $1 million in tax dollars lost.
If the department pays to train a recruit and sends him or her to the academy to earn certification, the officer will see a classmate go off to another agency and earn more money, Haley said.
“We give them the same training,” Haley said, “and they can go elsewhere and make more money.”