Cuffed by Cost

Area officers are finding out crime isn't the only thing that doesn't pay


Dave Kleiber has chased fugitives with the U.S. Marshals, worked on a special city crime unit and been part of an FBI task force.

His biggest challenge these days, however, is figuring out how to make mortgage payments in Steamboat Springs.

"I guess I was unaware of just how high the cost of living is here and how little the department actually does pay," Kleiber said.

Kleiber, a detective who took a pay cut to come to Steamboat from Anchorage, Alaska, is not sure whether he will be able to stay here on his $38,000 annual salary, a figure he considers "pretty shameful" for an officer with his experience level. Kleiber said he had to dip into his savings one month just to make payments on his duplex home in Steamboat.

Kleiber is one of at least three officers currently considering leaving the department, following others who have taken other jobs recently.

The force is already four positions down from its budgeted staff of 24, and if the three officers leave, Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays said he is worried he won't be able to offer the residents of Steamboat Springs the same level of service.

The cost of less pay

Hays said he is worried the amount of overtime hours over budget again this quarter his officers put in to make up for the lack of personnel is wearing on the officers.

"When we're short of people, we make up for it by making people here work long, long hours," Hays said.

Hays said he is always considering pulling his school resource officer his most "proactive" officer position out of Steamboat Springs High School to help with patrol.

The salaries for Steamboat officers, as noted in a recent study by the city's human services director, are well below average for similar Colorado cities, some of which have lower costs of living than Steamboat.

Human Services Director John Thrasher found that 12 cities comparable to Steamboat were paying their officers, on average, almost $200 a month more than Steamboat.

The middle of Steamboat's salary range is $3,610 per month, compared to $3,982 in Aspen and $3,792 in Breckenridge.

The starting salary for a Steamboat officer is $2,833 per month, which translates into about $34,000 a year.

Salary struggles

The City Council is aware of the problem and plans to consider police pay during the next budget retreat in October, Councilman Jim Engelken said.

"It seems like every year we have a new problem with personnel pay," Engelken said. "It has been bus drivers, snow plowers and public works employees.

"Now it's the issue of policemen and their pay. It's not a new issue by any means, but it's nearing a crisis."

Two officers from the Steamboat force went to the county for various reasons earlier this year, not all of which had to do with salary.

That's not to say the county is having any more luck retaining officers. The department regularly loses officers to the city or the Front Range, Sheriff John Warner said.

"We're losing people on a regular basis to Front Range agencies that are paying more and have lower costs of living," Warner said.

Starting salary for sheriff's deputies with no experience is $29,952.

Of the three city officers considering departing, each has different reasons for considering a move, but in just about every case salaries have played a major part.

"People are getting tired of struggling," Kleiber said.

Earlier this year, a group of officers in the Steamboat Police Department undertook a salary survey, checking out the towns where their former colleagues had gone and other resort towns. The results were eye opening.

"Our pay was significantly lower," Kleiber said.

The short staff

With the cost of housing in the region, many officers are unable to make their home in the city they protect. Of the 20 current Steamboat officers, only eight live within the city limits, two of whom rent.

Hays himself lives in Steamboat II and has never lived in the city, he said.

In the county, the number of officers living in Steamboat Springs, where the sheriff's office and jail are located is even more glaring.

Only one of Warner's 40 deputies lives in the city. And he's renting.

Kleiber said he also worries that the shortage of officers will mean he will have to work patrol, an option that has been discussed in the department.

A seasoned detective with seven years of experience, Kleiber sees that option as a serious step backward.

Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing often has to go out on patrol calls to keep the police presence adequate.

Looking at the problem

Hays splits the employee problem into two parts: attracting qualified people and retaining them.

The city may have an answer to the first of those problems. In the past, the city has made sure to hire only certified officers who have been to a police academy. Now, the city is considering hiring interested people who may not be certified and sending them to the police academy in return for service.

If the officers do not complete their term of service (perhaps three years), they will have to pay a prorated share of the city's investment in their education, said City Manager Paul Hughes.

Hays said he is excited about the program, which the county has been using for years, but added he doesn't think it will solve all of the city's problems.

"The city needs to look at an overall package that will not only attract people but get them to want to stay as a career,"

Hays said.


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