Merced officials say they’ve had a rough time trying to fill vacancies in the Merced Police Department, so they want to look at incentive programs and a greater recruitment effort to bolster the police force.
By all accounts, members of the Merced City Council have made public safety their top priority as the city heads into the next fiscal year. The council is mulling plans to add one police officer position, and maybe more, into the budget each year for the next five years.
However, the city is already struggling to fill the 88 spots it has now. So, the council unanimously approved plans to have staff members look into new efforts in the coming months. When the report will come back to the council remains unclear, but it will be some time after budget talks have ended.
The plans were spurred by a presentation of ideas this month by Councilman Michael Belluomini. “All I’m doing is presenting basic ideas, the beginning of the solution,” he said.
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The council went so far as to discuss out-of-state recruitment, but ultimately decided against it.
City Manager John Bramble, who worked in Colorado before coming to Merced, said he used the method before. He said the expenses tended to be high for the number of recruits the out-of-state effort garnered, but he noted the unemployment rate was significantly lower at the time.
Police Chief Norm Andrade said one way the city attempts to attract applicants is by hiring them as “trainees,” which means the city picks up the tab for the academy while providing them with wages. He said the city may be able to recoup the cost of the academy from an officer if he or she leaves the area, but not the wages.
The department also visits academies from Sacramento to Bakersfield to try to find recruits, he said.
Andrade said the contract signed this month between the city and the Merced Police Officers Association should help drum up interest in Merced from prospective officers. The new contract removes uncertainty, he said.
The city and the union agreed on a five-year contract that would deliver a 2 percent raise July 1, followed by raises of 2.25 percent, 2.5 percent and 2.75 percent in the next three years.
The council asked Andrade to come up with a list of incentives he thinks would make Merced competitive with other Valley towns.
Cities such as Modesto and Fresno have begun to offer signing bonuses to new officers. It could be a tall order to find bonus money in cash-strapped Merced, which already is trying to come up with funds to beef up the overtime budget for city firefighters, among other expenses.
Andrade said making sure retirement benefits line up with those of other cities in the state would likely go a long way.
Whatever incentives the city settles on, he said, there is significant uncertainty when hiring a trainee because being a police officer is not for everyone.
“The biggest drawback on it is the time we have to wait – six months,” he said. “During that six months, (despite) all the money you’ve invested in them, they may fail out of the academy.”
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.