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Council approves hiring temporary police officers at higher rates

To attract qualified employees, the Seward Police Department can now offer term employees who decline benefits a higher rate of pay.

Employee health insurance and retirement for a Seward patrol officer at the top of the pay scale could total up to $23 per hour.

At Monday night’s Seward City Council meeting, the city council passed a resolution authorizing the city manager to use savings from a temporary employee turning down benefits to offer a higher pay. Their pay is still dependent on qualifications and experience, and would only increases if the employee foregoes benefits and the city stays within budget (essentially so there is no additional cost to the taxpayers). 

The resolution was brought to the table because Seward Police Department’s patrol force has unexpectedly dropped.

“We have a military deployment, we have someone going on paternity leave, we have a retirement coming up and we have a vacancy all within the next nine months,” Bridges told the council. 

Coupled with Alaska’s shortage of qualified police officers, the police department faces a lack of qualified and trained staff for the foreseeable future, according to city documents.

“There is only a limited number of spots in academies. There is only a limited number of candidates in academies,” Bridges said. “But there is not a limited number of crime or need for public safety. This is a tool in the tool box that allows you to continue to ramp up staffing, particularly in the summer months when you have tremendous population increase in your community.”

The resolution was originally brought to the table at Nov. 26 city council meeting but postponed after council members expressed concerns. The council also received a letter from Seward Public Employee’s Association President Patrick Messmer saying that the resolution could potentially allow the administration to use temporary employees instead of union positions. 

“We have union negotiations underway and I’m very concerned that we not undercut those,” said Council Member Kelly Lane. “At the same time, I’ve had multiple people tell me that we have to address the safety of our community.” 

This resolution, though, was brought forward to address a unique situation faced by the Seward Police Department, Council Member Sue McClure said, and to be fiscally prudent in the face of considerable overtime. 

“This isn’t the norm and isn’t intended to be the norm, we’re just doing this to get adequate police force on our streets,” McClure said. 

When the resolution was revisited at Dec. 10’s meeting, Lane proposed an amendment to limit the terms to one year, versus the two permitted by city code. Council Member Suzanne Towsley proposed an amendment to limit the city manager to hiring just four term employees. Both amendments failed.

“I don’t understand the nature of the resistance,” Bridges said. “I’m sure there’s a segment of the community that is concerned, but it is our intention and the chief’s intention and every in that office’s intention to hire fully trained, Seward police officers and have them here as long as they want to be here.”

The resolution passed four votes to one. Council member Kelly Lane was the sole “no” vote. Council Member Sharyl Seese and Mayor David Squires were absent.