Even though police officers received a 10 percent raise this year, Baltimore County's police union is warning that the department's ability to attract recruits may be hampered because the county's rookies are among the lowest paid in the region.
Baltimore County's 1,743 officers, like all 7,000 county employees, would receive no pay increase under County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The County Council is scheduled to approve the $1.9 billion budget today.
The lack of raises for county officers comes as police agencies across the country are scrambling to fill vacancies and recruit from a shrinking pool of candidates.
With more than 340 county officers eligible to retire in July, Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, said there could be a shortage of officers within a few years.
"It is difficult to attract people to the field of law enforcement right now and surrounding jurisdictions are competing for a select, quality group," Weston said. "You need an attractive salary scale to at least remain competitive."
The union says that during meetings on next year's budget, it recommended lowering the department's authorized strength from 1,800 officers to 1,750 to free up $2.5 million to give officers at the 13th step a salary increase. The county declined.
Ruppersberger, a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat, has made public safety one of his administration's priorities. Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman, said county officers received a 10.25 percent raise this year -- three times more than other jurisdictions were offering.
Armacost noted that starting salaries for county officers have climbed 39 percent -- or about $10,000 -- since Ruppersberger was elected in 1994.
Despite that increase, entry-level officers in Baltimore County will earn less on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, than officers for Baltimore City, the Maryland State Police and Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
The starting salary for a Baltimore County officer will be $34,577. The state police starting salary of $36,432 will be the highest of the five agencies. The comparison assumes that fiscal year 2003 budget proposals submitted by Baltimore's mayor and the county executives are approved.
Baltimore County officers with more experience would earn about the same or more than their peers at other agencies, according to figures in Ruppersberger's budget proposal.
Some law enforcement experts, however, warn that police union complaints about salaries can lead to a costly game of one-upmanship.
Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University, is troubled by the way the FOP and government officials compare officers' pay scales. He called such comparisons "ludicrous" and said they result in inflated salaries.
"One department gets a raise, then the next department points to that department and says, `They are making more money than us, so we need to get a raise,'" Greenberg said. "It's not based on any kind of in-depth review of similar jobs or skill sets."
Greenberg said local governments need to start basing salaries on how officers perform their jobs and the overall service provided to communities.
"If we don't break the cycle, as it relates to the current way we are addressing police salaries, we will price ourselves out of the business," Greenberg said.
But Weston, of the police union, worries job candidates look at starting salaries first when deciding where they want to work.
Baltimore County has 57 fewer officers than positions available, for a vacancy rate of 3.1 percent. Anne Arundel County has a vacancy rate of 1.5 percent and Howard County 1.4 percent, according to statistics supplied by those departments. The Baltimore Police Department has no vacancies, but it continues to recruit new officers.
Bill Toohey, a Baltimore County police spokesman, said the department is expecting a full class of 64 recruits to enter the county's police academy next month. Weston predicted Baltimore County's failure to give raises to officers could cause some to leave the force for neighboring police departments.
Officials in Anne Arundel and Howard counties said they plan to address their police vacancies by hiring experienced officers from other agencies.