Increased public scrutiny of officers is causing some to resign or retire early.

Mayor John Suthers proposes giving all city workers a raise in July, having bypassed market adjustments in January amid the belt-tightening COVID-19 pandemic.

The raises, for all city employees, as well as an added bonus for police officers and firefighters, would cost taxpayers roughly $6.8 million, and are aimed at bolstering the city’s recruitment and retention efforts in certain fields, Suthers says in an interview.

The city has trouble attracting technology and engineering professionals, and is losing police officers almost as fast as they can be replaced, he says.

In fact, Police Chief Vince Niski took an unusual step recently to film a message asking officers to “stick with us.” He also said the city will need more officers by 2023 than Suthers and City Council have previously authorized.

Suthers’ proposal will be outlined for City Council at a retreat at Colorado Springs Airport June 10. He says police and fire raises would be funded with money from the American Rescue Plan, while local tax revenues, which have surged as the pandemic recedes, would pay for the other salary boosts.

“Quite frankly,” Suthers says, “the economy is humming.” In fact sales tax receipts have roared back recently, topping collections in March 2019 by a healthy 20 percent, he says. April, too, will be “a very good month,” he says.

Council must approve a budget amendment to allow the raises, and that seems likely. President Pro Tem Richard Skorman favors the pay hikes, calling them a “catch-up” maneuver.

Suthers’ proposal calls for a 3 percent across-the-board market adjustment for all employees, including police and firefighters. In addition, sworn personnel — cops and firefighters — would receive a one-time bonus of 2 percent of their annual pay. Civilians in the police and fire departments and workers citywide would be eligible for merit pay bumps as well, expected to average 1.8 percent.

The city strives to pay market average when compared to cities of similar size.

The raises would have this effect, based on city salary schedules:

• A police recruit’s annual pay would rise from $56,640 to $58,339; the bonus would add $1,132. Police Chief Niski’s pay would go up from $194,000 to $199,820.

• A fire recruit’s pay would jump from $54,600 to $56,238, and the bonus would add another $1,092. Fire Chief Randy Royal’s pay would go up from $177,841 to $183,176.

A sales tax investigator’s pay would rise from $49,387 to $50,868 from the 3 percent hike, and a 1.8 percent merit pay raise would add $889. The mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene’s salary would go up from $205,992 to $212,171.

Budgetary concerns in the middle of COVID-19 suspended pay raises earlier, so they’re overdue, Suthers says. “But we’re also, quite frankly, very concerned about the job market. We are having a very difficult time hiring and retaining IT and engineers. So the quicker we can give a market rate adjustment, the better in terms of attracting high specialty areas and retaining them.” 

The pay raises could help the city stem the out-migration for the Police Department as well. Suthers’ four-year plan to add 120 officers by the end of 2022, to reach a total of 803, likely will miss that goal.

“I don’t expect we’ll have the numbers we want or need until the end of 2022 and probably mid-year 2023,” Niski told officers in the video. “Please know that we’re trying to get as many employees as we can as quickly as we can.”

CSPD plans an academy class of 72 this fall and two more of 72 each in 2022.

But even if the 803 is reached, it isn’t enough, Niski told officers. “The way the city’s growing, especially to the northeast, 803 is not going to accommodate the needs of the community.”

Besides development progressing in the 18,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch on the city’s east side since the 1988 annexation agreement was modified in 2018 to encourage development, City Council has annexed another roughly 1,000 acres in that area.

Data show while the current authorized strength stands at 786, the CSPD has 710 officers on the job.

This year, the department started with 718 officers and added 31 but 39 officers have left since Jan. 1.

Niski says in an interview he’s having little trouble recruiting, but the pay raises will keep officers at scale compared to other departments. “It’s fair to say any person who gets a raise, it’s an incentive to stay,” he says, but he notes the CSPD received more applications in 2020 than in 2019.

On the civilian side, the authorized strength stands at 309, but the actual figure is 300, records show. So far this year, 28 people have been hired, but 21 left.

Several years ago, Suthers says, the city had 14 police officers per 10,000 population, four fewer than other cities of similar size. By the end of 2022, he expects the ratio to remain below national averages.

Moreover, in presentations at the Council/mayor meeting next week, Royal and Niski are expected to forecast the need for several fire stations and one police station in the east and northeast sectors, requiring dozens more employees, Suthers says.

Despite calls to “defund the police,” Suthers says, “We need more police officers, not less.” With 90 percent of an officer’s day spent responding to calls, there’s not much time to build relationships through community policing, he says.

Adding to turnover, he says, is intense scrutiny that evolved from high-profile officer-involved shootings across the country that have led to calls for imposing personal liability on officers for job-related actions, which is a deterrent.

Skorman backs the raises, especially for line workers, those in lower-paying jobs. “Those are the people we want to be sure they feel appreciated,” he says.

While he’s confident tax revenue will be sufficient to cover the ongoing cost of the raises, he also notes Council could revisit police and fire impact fees paid by developers. “When there’s new building, we’re going to require more,” he says.

Skorman also suggested CSPD could expand its community service force, which handles traffic control and non-criminal matters to free up sworn officers. “I think we need to get creative,” he says.

In his message to officers, Niski says attrition is common across the country and urges officers to not look for greener pastures.

“I’m just here to let you know if you’re looking to go to another department that’s in the same boat we’re in, stick with us,” he says. “All you can do is go and do one call, one investigation at a time. That’s all we expect. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and, again, know that we’re aware of the problem and we’re trying to fix it.” 

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. The original inaccurately reported pay for Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski, Colorado Springs Fire Department Chief Randy Royal and city Chief-of-Staff Jeff Greene. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.