Dozens of Olathe police officers and supporters packed a City Council budget hearing Tuesday night calling for higher salaries and improved efforts to fill a number of vacancies in the police force.
While some of their claims were disputed by the city’s police chief, some speakers warned the shortage of police was putting officers and the public at risk.
“Safety is one of the city’s highest priorities … the police department’s ability to provide that safety is diminishing with our struggle to retain and recruit quality officers,” said Steve Sabasto, an Olathe police detective and president of the Olathe Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Sabasto added that officers are racking up overtime and having to forego earned vacation to make up for vacancies, which he estimated could reach 20 later this month.
“We have a city of over 135,000 residents and sometimes there are only eight to 10 officers patrolling the streets at one time,” he said. “We believe this is an issue that needs to be addressed before things get worse.”
Debbie Graham, whose son-in-law is an Olathe officer, said some on the force haven’t received a raise in three years. She said officers also have to deal with increased public scrutiny and operate against a backdrop of police killings in places like Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and even Kansas City, Kan.
“We must take care of these people; they’re taking care of us,” Graham said, whose comments received applause from the audience.
Police Chief Steve Menke, in an interview after the meeting, differed sharply with some of the speakers’ claims, saying the department currently has only eight vacancies out of 176 positions, a number that has been much higher in the past.
“If I felt that safety was being compromised in any way in the city, we would do something different,” Menke said.
He said that officers and sergeants have received either 4 percent or 6 percent raises this year as part of the department’s regular “step” plan and are budgeted to receive the same boost in the proposed 2017 spending plan. The proposed budget also includes funding for five additional officer positions.
That said, the department and city officials are in the middle of a survey determining how Olathe police salaries compare with those of nearby law enforcement agencies and if adjustments are necessary, which the city has done for years, Menke said.
He acknowledged that the department has struggled to find new officers in the last year, reflecting a trend across the country. He said that while the department received about 1,000 applications last year, so far in 2016 it has received around 80, none of whom met the department’s requirements.
“For us there’s challenges with hiring,” Menke said. “We certainly need to be competitive with pay so we can attract good candidates. You need to look at the national picture as well, and not everybody wants to do this job right now.”
Mayor Michael Copeland thanked the assembled officers for their continued service and acknowledged the “unnecessary environment” in which they currently operate. He cautioned that the survey results and salaries changes, if any, likely wouldn’t be ready until the end of the year.
“I can tell you this city council is committed to ensuring that we have a fair pay policy in place,” Copeland said. “The extent (to which) we are missing that mark we will correct.”
The council is scheduled to vote on adopting the 2017 budget Aug. 16. The $339.3 million spending plan represents a 4 percent increase over the 2016 plan of $325.8 million although the city doesn’t plan to raise the current tax rate of 24.688 mills.
Resident Mary Gomez criticized the council for continuing to increase the budget as rising property values generate higher taxes, despite holding the line on the tax rate.
“What have each of you done to cut the budget so that no increase is necessary?” Gomez asked the council “Where will this all end and will it continue next year?”
In other business, the council voted unanimously to rezone 11.5 acres at Hedge Lane and 135th Street and approve the preliminary development plan for The Shops at Prairie Farms, a development expected to include a restaurant, convenience store, bank and office building.
Jim Hubbard, a representative of Olathe Health System, told the council the organization plans to buy a lot on the property for a future clinic.
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