South Bethany is paving a solid path forward for its police department, as the town council has unanimously approved a new rank and salary scale, plus several candidates for two vacant positions.
After the probationary period, there are now four ranks: police officer; police officer first-class; corporal; and sergeant. Within each rank, there are five or six pay levels, based on experience, merit and time in service. There is typically only one sergeant at any given time.
Perhaps more importantly, officers will now have to pass a standardized test to advance to the next rank.
“People have to get raises based on merit … and that's for all employees, not just police,” said Mayor Tim Saxton.
As the ranking police officer, Chief Troy Crowson will still evaluate his staff for hiring and pay increases, then make recommendations to the town council.
“Money's got to be there to allow this, as well. So that drives a whole other set of decisions that have to happen,” Saxton clarified.
Any police academy and probationary hire would make $42,000 to $45,000. Full police officers make about $49,800 to $56,000. Corporals make $57,700 to $66,100. The sergeant will make $68,100 to $77,000. (The police chief is not included on the salary chart, as he or she negotiates a separate contract, as does the town manager.)
“Looking at our current cops, this thing will last quite a while,” Saxton said, though a long-time employee could cap out. “I don't want to mislead the chief. If somebody starts at Pay Level 6, you're stuck at Pay Level Six. You do get COLAs,” if the town council approves cost-of-living adjustments.
The new ranks take effect on May 1, to coincide with Town's new fiscal year and to give everyone time to develop plans for implementation. For instance, Crowson said they'll need to nail down policies for raises and bringing current employees onto a new pay scale in a fair way.
The council also included Crowson's suggestion of adding the rank of police officer first-class, and occasional pay-scale reviews, to ensure South Bethany remains competitive with nearby towns.
Those expenses will be built into the 2020-fiscal-year budget, discussions of which are ramping up now.
The new salaries are competitive, coming in at middle to high levels compared to comparable jurisdictions, Saxton said. The plan was developed with recommendations from the CPSM department study, the town manager and the new town solicitor, who specializes in police management.
“It satisfies our desire to get rid of 16 ranks,” Saxton said, but also opens the door for a possible restructuring of other town hall salary scales.
As for this year's merit raises, the South Bethany Town Council will likely give the managers a pool of money to split as they see fit among their employees.
South Bethany Town Council members have been saying through multiple administrations that there is no intention to dismantle the Town's police force.
In July, Town Manager Maureen Hartman had been assigned to work with an attorney on an updated rank structure. But the town council was silent about their intentions, and it wasn't until this November that Saxton even announced that Hartman was working on something. So rumors and accusations intensified over the last year and, by February, many people were cautiously interested to hear what the town council would approve.
Preparing a new crop of officers
The goal is still for the Town to have five full-time police officers, plus the chief. Right now, the SBPD has three prime candidates for two positions: two recruits who need to attend a six-month police academy from March to August, plus one out-of-state officer who needs additional training to become Delaware-certified.
The town council voted on the conditional hires of three candidates, since they still needed to finish some employment screenings and will need up to six months of additional training, plus three months of probationary training. The Town will also continue to advertise for officers.
Although there are only two openings, the Town wanted to have multiple options ready to go, in case something falls through, officials said. (As usual, the Town is also seeking a seasonal officer for summer.)
“We are approving that expense to send them. The expense for sending someone to the academy is approximately $2,500, plus they get paid an academy officer rate while they're in the academy,” Saxton clarified.
“We just voted this evening to bring us to five [officers]. … This council is doing everything they promised they would do,” Saxton said.
One big happy… détente
After an explosive and accusatory meeting in December and public email in January, the Feb. 8 meeting seemed like a giant exhalation of breath. Things aren't perfect, but having some answers turned the meeting into an “evening of gratitude,” said resident Linda Lewis.
After the executive session to discuss the candidates, the council re-entered the meeting room to see a full house of people ready to hear their plans.
Much of the meeting included an exchanging of niceties. Besides asking more questions about the rank structure, several people thanked the council for listening to the public and volunteering to serve a sometimes-thankless job.
More than usual, the town council took time to thank various departments for their ongoing work, including volunteers who work behind the scenes, and acknowledge the police department's recent honors.
Over the years, many people have called and emailed their public officials. But some commentary on this issue became downright concerning, as Council Member Jimmy Oliver shared threatening language from two separate comments he saw or received: “These two are considered threats. … I'm shocked at these. That's not what we need in this town.”
“I've been made aware of more inappropriate communications to you,” said Larry Budd. “The group I work with — that is not our agenda, we do not condone that, in any shape or form, and we try to keep the conversation civil and fact-based. It does generate emotions.”
For that reason, he encouraged open conversation and supported Billy Bonbright's suggestion of an ad hoc committee to further study the department of public safety and to continue working forward.
“The agenda you put forward tonight is a first step,” said Budd, a vocal supporter of the SBPD.
Despite his ongoing concerns, Dan Cowell also warmed to the council's responsiveness: “I sense that tonight that there is some sensitivity to what the citizens feel.”
Resident Richard Ronan suggested that council include a line in the plan about a “mandatory minimum” number of officers, to ensure they always have 24-hour coverage.
In other police news:
• The town council ratified the mayor's decision to purchase a new computer server for police evidence, since the department's aging equipment has already crashed once and presents major liabilities for investigations. They used about $3,500 from the health insurance budget that hadn't been used, plus $15,825 from the asset replacement and maintenance (ARM) fund.
“This is truly important about how we budget in this town. This did not come from the operating budget. … This shows the ARM works,” said Saxton, who initially lobbied as part of its financial committee for a Town ARM account, which acts as a savings account for major replacements.
• The town council had also hosted a closed executive session that lasted more than two hours on Jan. 29. They subsequently voted unanimously to “proceed with administrative and legal actions that were just discussed in executive session.” Saxton would not share any details after that legal strategy session, and Town Solicitor Stephani Ballard said the topics were not discussed at the Feb. 8 meeting.
• For the South Bethany PD's outstanding work with pedestrian safety, they were nominated by the Office of Highway Safety to attend a national Lifesavers Conference. Although the SBPD ultimately didn't win the Public Service Award, the town council and citizens present at this week's meeting applauded the department for that honor.
Crowson called it a department-wide effort with many partnerships, from McDonald's to the South Bethany Communications & Public Relations Committee.
• After knocking down and rearranging some walls last year, the police station passed a Criminal Justice Council audit with no violations, aided by the renovations.
• The Town's new website is live at www.southbethany.delware.gov.
South Bethany Town Council budget workshops will be held Feb. 28 and March 28 at 3 p.m. Town Hall will also host a public meeting on the 2020-fiscal-year draft budget on March 8 at 5 p.m. before the regular 6 p.m. council meeting.
By Laura Walter