Waterville police Officer Scott Dumas pulls over a car April 24 for having a taillight out on Water Street. Waterville patrol officers will see a pay increase after the City Council on Tuesday approved a new union contract. Michael Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Police chiefs in central Maine say it’s increasingly difficult to find qualified applicants for police work and to hold onto experienced, senior officers who are lured by better pay elsewhere.

Inadequate wages, a waning interest by young people in law enforcement careers and renewed scrutiny in recent years of police operations have contributed to a shortage of officers in Maine and elsewhere in the country, officials say.

Waterville took a step toward improving recruitment and retention efforts when the City Council on Tuesday voted to ratify a collective bargaining agreement with the Maine State Fraternal Order of Police that increases patrol officers’ wages and gives them a retirement plan starting in July that includes a cost-of-living increase.

“We’re very pleased with the contract, and I think that it is going to help very much in keeping up in what is a very difficult time to hire police officers,” Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey said Wednesday.

The city has 31 sworn officers and the department is down one officer. Nineteen patrol officers and four detectives are covered by the terms of the contract.

The new three-year pact increases the starting pay for a patrol officer from $19.96 an hour to $24. The previous contract had six step increases that topped at $27.10 an hour after six years. With the new agreement, at the start of year six a patrol officer will make $28.74, which translates to an annual salary of about $60,000.

Not only does starting pay increase, but someone with four years of experience will make $26.22 an hour, up from $25.48 under the prior pact, Massey said.

The parties involved in the negotiations also reached an agreement on a competitive testing and interview process for the detective-sergeant positions and for a communications sergeant position. The positions previously would go to the most senior qualified sergeant, according to Massey.

Police chiefs in Winslow and Oakland said they’re contending with the same staffing issues Massey is working to address.

“We’re all trying to be competitive and retain the best people and recruit the best people,” Winslow police Chief Leonard Macdaid said. “We’re going through negotiations, and our current pay scale is quite a bit below where it should be.”

Macdaid conducted a study in June of 12 police departments to gather information about wages, and already the study is outdated because things are changing so quickly, he said. At the time, Winslow patrol officers earned $3 an hour less than other officers in the area, he said. A starting patrolman with no experience earns $19.08 an hour in Winslow and a top patrolman with five to 10 years of experience earns $23.49, according to Macdaid. The one detective at the department earns $25.07 an hour, he said. The department has five patrolmen and, like Waterville, Winslow is seeking another officer.

“I’m down one right now,” Macdaid said. “He went to southern Maine and got an increase of $5 in pay.”

Oakland police Chief Michael Tracy said his department was down two officers and just hired one.

“It took us quite a while to find the one, and we’re still looking for our second,” he said.

Tracy started police work in the early 1980s when an opening would draw 20 to 50 candidates, he said.

“There was a lot of competition for every open spot,” he said. “You just don’t have that number of applicants in this day and age, and it’s for a lot of different reasons.”

Starting pay for a patrol officer in Oakland who has been to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is $22.04 an hour, while an officer with at least 16 years of experience earns $25.09 an hour, according to Tracy, who has been chief for 20 years. His department has 10 full-time officers, including Tracy.

He and several other police chiefs met recently to talk about recruitment efforts and how departments can draw applicants.

“You’re going to hear the same story, no matter who you call right now in law enforcement,” he said.

Michael Edes, executive director of the Maine chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, says there’s a “huge shortage” of police officers statewide with departments having a tough time recruiting new talent.

A pall has fallen over law enforcement agencies in the country as activists and others have called for defunding the police and other reform measures, Edes said. He represents the Portland Superior Officers Association, which includes sergeants and higher-ranking officers, and no one put in for a recent opportunity for promotion because there isn’t an appetite for taking on added responsibility in today’s climate, he said.

“I think Portland’s one of the best departments there is and to have an environment where officers don’t want to put in for promotions — you lose some of the best,” he said.

The Maine chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police union, the largest in the state, represents 50 departments, including Waterville.

“What we’re finding right now is officers will go to one department and then they find out a nearby department pays $3 or $4 more and they’ll go over there,” Edes said, “and if that department doesn’t keep up and stay competitive, they’ll go someplace else.”

Most departments now recognize prior service as a way to stay competitive, he said. For instance, an officer with six years of experience will be hired by a department on a pay scale that recognizes those prior years of experience, rather than in prior years when that experience didn’t necessarily count and the officer would receive rookie pay.

“The big problem is, you can rob Peter to pay Paul, but there’s no depth to the applicant pool,” Edes said.

When Edes applied years ago to become a state trooper, 1,000 people would apply for the same position. But these days a department might have two openings and of the 12 people who apply, six don’t show up and four can’t pass a background check, he said.

Edes represents the Fort Kent Police Association in Aroostook County where the department recently went from five officers to one, he said. The same scenario occurred in Mechanic Falls where the number of officers decreased from six to one, he said.

“The Fort Kent town manager said, ‘What can we do to improve our recruitment package for new hires?'” Edes said. He said the union worked with the town on its retirement package, which required a 25-year-old officer just starting a career to work until 65 in order to retire.

“They went from the worst retirement package in the state to the best — 20 years out,” Edes said. “They turned around and bumped up their police officers’ pay. We already had a contract that was going to last three years. They were so desperate. They automatically offered a $3 increase, right from the get-go. Then they offered a $1 increase the second year and a $2 increase the third year, and now they are very competitive in the county. You can see that offering competitive wages really does work.” Edes says the department was able to make new hires after the increases.

The Pittsfield Police Department, which also struggles to draw applicants, recently benefited from an updated contract that increases pay, offers new officers a $15,000 signing bonus and extends residency requirements to 50 miles.

“We find these towns and municipalities have to step up or they’re not going to get anybody,” Edes said.

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