Chesterton Tribune



Officer to Chesterton Town Council: Public safety at risk due to low wages

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There were no across-the-board raises for Town of Chesterton municipal employees this year, and there will be none next year.

That decision was made long ago, last summer during the Town Council’s budget talks, and was common knowledge at the time, so the police officers, firefighters, and other employees who jammed the town hall at the council’s meeting Monday night weren’t there expecting a bump.

They were there instead to warn members about the threat to public safety which comes from letting wages stagnate.

Speaking on behalf of employees was a police officer, Lt. Joe Christian, who began by putting this question to President Jim Ton, R-1st: did the $800,000 shortfall to the 2017 General Fund--the result of a mistake made last year by the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office when calculating the maximum controlled levy and prompting the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance to slash the 2017 budget--in any way affect any citizens or projects?

“It’s a fair question,” Ton replied. “We’ve had to go into areas we’ve never had to go before. It’s been a challenging time since April. We’re not through it yet but we’re close to the end.”

In specific response to Christian’s question, though, Ton said the shortfall has caused “nothing essential or vital to public safety” to be cut or reduced and “nothing affecting employees’ welfare.”

But there’s no sugarcoating the shortfall either. “We’ve had to tighten our belts especially strongly in the General Fund,” he said. “That’s where we took the hit. As far as the General Fund, it’s been pretty bare minimum.”

In April, when the council announced the shortfall, members agreed on “a four-point plan to keep payroll going and pay for insurance,” Ton added. That plan included the use of cash reserves and income from the town’s share of cigarette and riverboat taxes, as well as the imperative for department heads to “trim expenses.”

“But the medicine is sometimes pretty tough to take,” Ton concluded. If, in the New Year, “there’s anything left after the shortfall has been covered, if we find we have funds free and clear after we’ve paid our bills, we’ll try to make a stipend to employees.”

Stagnant Wages and Public Safety

For Christian, on the other hand, stagnant wages have had a very concrete impact on public safety: well--and expensively--trained veteran officers have been leaving the CPD by droves seeking greener pastures. By Christian’s count 14 have done so over the last 20 years or so, and two of them this year alone. These have been good officers, Christian added, and many of them are now in positions of responsibility in other departments, some of them chiefs.

And there can hardly not be a trickle-down effect on public safety, Christian told the council. For one thing, the CPD loses “serious, serious experience when a veteran leaves.” For another, the CPD is left short-handed until those veterans can be replaced, by a hiring process which tends to be lengthy. New recruits--two were hired last spring--then need to undergo field training, which puts two officers in a squad car for a period of months, rather than two in two squads, and they also must attend three months at the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

All of which means that the CPD is nowhere near operating at full strength, hasn’t for some years, and won’t for sometime more, and residents of Chesterton can draw their own conclusions about what effect a short-staffed police department may have on public safety.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” Christian said.

The answer, on paper, is simple enough: raise CPD salaries to bring something like parity with other departments’ and then maintain that parity going forward. Christian pointed to two bumps for the CPD over the last not quite 25 years: one in 1994 and another in 2004. But those raises were only “Band-Aids,” he said, insofar as the council has allowed salaries to lag again.

“Make the salaries competitive and keep them competitive to retain officers and recruit experienced ones,” Christian advised members. He then put the issue to members in the frankest possible way: “Whether public safety is important enough to the council” to find a way to make raises possible.

“There were issues in getting raises for a long, long time,” Ton for his part acknowledged. “If we had the money, you’d be getting raises.”



Posted 12/12/2017





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