Costly health insurance causing shortage of officers

Published 11:24 am Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Although the City of Franklin’s entry-level salary for police officers is nearly $1,700 more than they would receive in Chesapeake, those in Chesapeake may actually net $4,935.60 more in take-home pay. The reason for this discrepancy, according to Franklin Police Chief Phil Hardison, can be summarized in two words: health insurance.

According to data Hardison presented to Franklin’s city council on Monday, nearly half of the city of Franklin’s total cost to provide health insurance is passed onto its employees, resulting in monthly premiums for officers as high as $978.80 for those who choose the city’s top tier family plan. As a result, three officers, eight dispatchers and one animal control officer left the FPD in 2017 for neighboring localities with more competitive employment offers.

“We’re at a third of our operational strength,” Hardison told the members of council. “But what is more concerning to me is where we are on the communications level.”

Hardison reported that the city has only three remaining full-time dispatchers working its 911 switchboard, and that the city has been contracting with the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office since December as a stop-gap measure. Two of the city’s uniformed FPD officers are also assigned to dispatch duty.

“If those phones are not answered, nothing moves,” Hardison said. “I appreciate everything Sheriff [John] Stutts has done, but there’s nothing more [he can do.] These are basic services that our city is responsible for. If you expect me to do it, then I need the resources.

“Most of people assigned to communications are moms, and those are the ones we’ve lost. They’re not there to put their kids on the bus in the morning, the insurance is outrageous, and our neighbor [localities] — they capitalize on that and they take our very best people.”

Out of a sworn strength of 30 personnel, the FPD has five vacancies for police officers, six vacancies for dispatchers and only one full-time animal control officer. When the animal control officer is traveling or off duty, it falls to other officers to take care of the animals at the city’s shelter, taking away from the time they can devote to patrols or other duties.

The FPD has also had to contend with poaching by recruiters from neighboring localities. Hardison gave the recent example of Roy, a 20-year veteran of the FPD, who was approached by Isle of Wight County. When he turned down their first offer, they came back and offered him $5,000 more than his current salary, a take-home vehicle and paid vacation time equivalent to what an officer that had been with the county for 20 years would receive.

When differences in health insurance premiums were factored in, the total increase in Roy’s take-home pay with Isle of Wight amounted to approximately $11,000.

“The cost of insurance is effectively the same in the Hampton Roads region, what is strikingly different is what the municipalities pay versus what employees pay,” Hardison said.

Hardison’s report to council on the FPD’s recruitment and retention difficulties comes on the heel of a recent expose on the high number of gun incidents in Franklin, which rose in 2017 by around 40 percent of what had been reported in previous years. While Hardison did not make any correlation between the decrease in officers and the increase in incidents during his presentation, department spokesman Capt. Tim Whitt said that any time an agency loses a significant number of officers, it loses its ability to be proactive in addressing crime and becomes reactive, since there would be fewer officers actively seeking out criminal violations.

When it came time for council members to discuss Hardison’s presentation, Mayor Frank Rabil pointed out that the city had seen a 40 percent increase in health insurance costs for all employees.

“That’s well above the national average, but we do have an aging workforce,” Rabil said.

Councilman Linwood Johnson asked Hardison if the police department had any solutions in mind to address the insurance issue, and suggested council hold a workshop on the matter in the near future.

In other business, the council further discussed its proposed derelict property ordinance, but no action was taken on the matter that evening.