A bit of bad timing led to Hoffman Estates taxpayers covering one of the highest average salaries for police officers in the state.
At $89,056.28, the average salary of 73 Hoffman Estates full-time officers is a little more than $10,000 above the average of 77 communities in the Daily Herald's coverage area of the northern and western suburbs. But it's almost $20,000 more than the entire metropolitan region's average, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
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"We settled a five-year contract just prior to the recession," said Village Manager Jim Norris. "It was one of the longest contracts the village had ever done with police. It ends at the end of this year."
That contract increased officers' pay by 20 percent during that time period, which amounted to roughly $1.3 million in added costs over the five years.
Critics say such salaries not only cut into funds for other municipal services, but increase pension liabilities, reduce police staffing levels and affect neighboring communities' abilities to hold the line on police salaries when they are negotiating.
"Nobody wants to see police officers underpaid, but there's a limit to what any city can afford," said Lawrence McQuillan, chief economist at the Illinois Policy Institute, a government-spending watchdog group. "Cities in California have declared bankruptcy because benefits and pay for public safety workers became such large pieces of the budget they could no longer afford it. There's a limit to how generous you can be. Otherwise you're faced with empty patrol cars."
All but eight of Hoffman Estates' officers will receive salaries of $89,926.21 this year, according to data received through a Freedom of Information Act request. The same request was sent to 80 municipalities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. Only Cary and Itasca did not respond. Tower Lakes responded, but does not employ any full-time sworn police personnel.
The average salary among the 77 departments amounted to $79,000.46. Only the salaries of full-time officers with no supervisory responsibilities were analyzed. Only pensionable earnings were considered, so overtime and other stipends were excluded.
Of the 77 departments, 29 averaged higher salaries than the group's average.
"It's not a surprise to us," Norris said. "But the village's compensation strategy and policy is, regardless of the position, we try to pay at the midpoint or close to it."
Rolling Meadows averaged the second highest in police pay among municipalities surveyed, coming in with an average of $87,575.68 for the department's 38 officers.
"The real root of the problem is the contract creep," said Rolling Meadows Mayor Tom Rooney. "Rolling Meadows had, as a policy, we didn't want to be toward the bottom of the pay scale."
Over each of the past 12 years, police have received raises of at least 4 percent, he said. "They even got 4.5 percent one year and 5 percent another. And that's compounding each year, too."
The city and police union will begin negotiating a new contract this year. Rooney said he hopes that the days of 4 percent raises are over.
But Rolling Meadows Chief Dave Scanlan said officers have made concessions in their contracts in recent years that have helped lower personnel costs and maintain minimum staffing levels. There are also seven fewer sworn positions within the department than there were four years ago, according to data provided by the city.
Police staffing levels have dropped in Hoffman Estates, as well. The department has two openings for sworn personnel currently, and only 94 total sworn positions now as opposed to 105 in 2008.
"We're working smarter, not harder," said Hoffman Estates Police Chief Michael Hish. "We're trying to concentrate on areas and our statistics rather than just a general patrol of the village."
While most departments have lower personnel numbers now than in the recent past, that's been done mainly through retirement rather than layoffs. That means more former officers are receiving pensions, which taxpayers cover.
Because of the demands of the job, police officers don't have to work as long as most other public employees to maximize their pension benefits. Officers can begin collecting at age 50. After 20 years on the job, they can receive a minimum of 50 percent of their final salary. After 30 years on the job, they maximize their retirement benefit with a starting pension of 75 percent of their final salary. Retired police personnel also receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase every year that's compounded annually.
But McQuillan believes a town's high police salaries may have the biggest detriment on taxpayers who don't even live there. That's because union representatives and arbitrators look at the salaries of comparable neighboring departments during negotiations.
"It's impacting all the budgets around you," McQuillan said. "I don't think (city leaders) realize the cascading affect it has."
Norris agreed that neighboring labor costs are one of the biggest drivers in police personnel costs, not the dangers that some might associate with the job.
"I don't think crime rates really go into it," he said.