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Martinsburg police argue for higher pay

November 03, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Higher salaries and better benefits are needed to retain and attract police officers, Martinsburg City Police officers told City Council members Tuesday night.

Other city employees don't want to be left out, saying any salary-realignment should be citywide.

While six of the council's seven members were present for the roughly one-hour meeting focusing on police pay, the meeting actually was a Personnel Committee meeting.

Committee Chairman and Councilman Max Parkinson said the committee would discuss the meeting behind closed doors and make a recommendation to the City Council. No decision was to be made Tuesday night.

Before the meeting began Mayor Earnest Sparks said he wanted to avoid a repeat of last month's contentious face-off. "Hollering and screaming" won't accomplish much, he told the approximately 30 people who attended.

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Police told the committee the department was drawing few applicants in comparison to nearby cities with higher pay.

Patrolman Steve Urbanski said Hagerstown recently had 165 people show up for a police department test, while Martinsburg had 11 people show up. Martinsburg has 35 sworn officers.

Until Monday, Martinsburg offered the lowest starting annual salary for police officers among similar-sized cities in the region - approximately $21,900.

That went up to $24,550 a year on Monday when a new starting salary schedule kicked in, said City Manager Mark Baldwin.

Starting annual salaries in nearby cities are: $25,354 in Hagerstown; $30,279 in Frederick, Md.; $30,160 in Chambersburg, Pa.; $28,621 in Winchester, Va.; and $22,500 in Charles Town for police officers who have been through the academy.

Martinsburg Cpl. Charles Ellis Jr. said the problem goes beyond starting salaries.

Hagerstown pays its officers more when it comes to years of service as well, one reason Martinsburg is losing officers of seniority, Ellis said.

When officers with seniority leave, the city loses their experience and the investment made in those officers, he said.

All of this is happening as Berkeley County is the fastest growing county in the state.

"Our calls to service are increasing, however our manpower is decreasing," Ellis said.

Ellis questioned the city's wisdom in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to repave city streets when the city has problems retaining police officers.

"I think the safety of the citizens in town should carry a little more precedence than the blacktop," Ellis said.

Besides the salary difference Urbanski said Hagerstown police officers who work evening or night shifts get higher pay and Hagerstown officers get two hours minimum of overtime for any court appearance, no matter how brief.

Martinsburg has no pay differential and pays overtime for the actual length of the court appearance, police said.

Reducing police overtime costs has been a major concern of Hagerstown's mayor and City Council in recent years.

The Martinsburg City Council doesn't have to return with a full package of better salaries and benefits, but the police department needs some relief, Ellis said, adding that 10 officers since 1994 have left for higher salaries at other departments.

Police aren't the only employees who deserve a raise, two city employees from other departments said.

Fire Lt. Eddie Gochenour said he respected the city's police department, but asked for "a fair and equitable salary alignment for all employees."

Betty Mason, secretary of the Public Works Department, agreed with Gochenour.

Mason said the city's garbage collectors, street cleaners and mechanics also work under tough conditions.

Garbage collectors may get pricked by needles in trash bags not knowing whether the person who used the needle has AIDS, and mechanics lay on cold concrete under garbage trucks while maggots fall in their face, she said.

Mason said she'd like to ask council members how much they would have to be paid to work under such conditions.

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