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"Price of Protection": Joplin's Firefighter and Police Officer - KOAM TV 7

"Price of Protection": Joplin's Firefighter and Police Officer Retention Problem

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Joplin, MO -

Police

Jeremy Bland has a warning.

"The community should be worried," says Bland.

38-year-old Bland was a patrol officer with the Joplin Police Department for almost four years.  His best friend was his K9, Pax.

"That's what I wanted to do with my entire career, or I wouldn't have ever done the testing to get a dog.  I would've stuck with patrol and done something else.  I knew that having a dog would be a long-term position, and I accepted that," says Bland.

That long term career that Bland had hoped for ended in 2014.

"My second child, my daughter was born, I took paternity leave, and I started realizing kind of what I was missing at home.  Not that that had everything to do with it, but I started realizing the time I was losing for the amount of money I was making," says Bland.

Bland now works outside of law enforcement.

"New officers are excited about working here," says Shelby Howard, president of Joplin's police union.  "But it doesn't take long for them to figure out that this is not getting anywhere, as far as salary goes."

Howard says the biggest problem with retaining officers is there's no salary plan.

"Five years from now, an officer might be making the same amount as today," says Howard.

Bland says he was earning almost $29,000 a year when he was hired.  We compared Joplin's current starting pay with nearby cities; Joplin's is nearly $35,000, Pittsburg's average starting salary is $35,000, in Springfield the starting pay is $37,000, and in Bentonville, starting pay is $38,500.

"At the end of the day, I care about these people I used to work with," says Bland.  "Knowing how much better they can support their family, outside of law enforcement, I hate not sharing that with them."

Numbers released from the Joplin police union show an increasing or steady number of police leaving the force since 2012; eight officers in 2012, nine in 2013, 14 in 2014, 14 in 2015, 14 in 2016, and 15 so far this year.

"We'll have officers some, get their training after the academy, work a year or two, maybe three, build their resume, then move on," says Howard.

The number of police retiring this year could be the highest in five years.

"We have guys looking or leaving...pretty much every week, we're hearing about somebody either testing somewhere or in the background phases of getting hired somewhere," says Howard.

Joplin City Manager Sam Anselm says he, too, sees a problem with police retention.

"Like several other cities, I think there's an issue," says Anselm.

The City is putting together data to compare Joplin's retention rate to other cities.

"Over 82 percent of our budget is sales tax driven," says Anselm.

Anselm says the City's budget is stretched, largely because sales tax collections are down three percent.

"We're not a company.  I can't go out and make more widgets n order to make more revenue and be able to pay employees more money.  We're limited by the taxes we collect.  The City collects very little in property taxes, most of those property taxes go towards the school district," says Anselm.

"I believe there is money, if they're willing to look and cut other things in the City that are losing money year after year.  I don't think the City, as a whole, knows what the concerns are.  Specifically the (City) Council.  My concern is they don't know the dire position we are in.  At some point, you're not going to have any experienced officers on the street, which is where we're near now.  The lack of years of experience on the street right now, compared to what it was ten years ago, is ridiculous," says Howard.

Anselm says hopes City Council will soon prioritize City-wide budget items.

Everyone in the Joplin Police and Fire departments received a 3% raise last year.  Everyone in the departments is getting a 2% raise this year, except patrol officers and corporals who are in union negotiations with the City.

Firefighters

Joseph Huddleston was a captain with the Joplin Fire Department.

"This is what I perceived as my first full-time career," says Huddleston.

He retired from the department last year, after 12 years of being a Joplin firefighter.

"Being in the fire department, there's a huge amount of pride, and it's a brotherhood," says Huddleston.  "But at some point, that pride and brotherhood gets trumped by what's important...your family," says Huddleston.

"Any time you deal with public safety and you lose one firefighter who has experience, it's an issue.  We have a problem with our retention," says Jeremie Humphrey, president of Joplin's firefighter union.

Humphrey says the Joplin Fire Department has been dealing with a 32% turnover rate going back to 2013.

"What I have been seeing with our firefighters leaving, the majority of them have been due to going to a higher paying department, or to jobs outside of the fire service that pay more," says Humphrey.

Huddleston says he was making about $14 an hour when he retired from the Joplin Fire Department.  He's no longer a firefighter, makes double what he was making before, but still misses his old job.

"It's like a divorce," says Huddleston.  "You come back and it's not the same.  The jokes are different.  The guys maybe aren't the same.  You're welcome (at the fire station), but you're visiting."

Joplin City Manager Sam Anselm hopes one of the first things a new City Council does next year is budget based of priorities.

"We're here to provide a safe and prepared community.  We're also here to provide quality infrastructure, and quality of life type issues," says Anselm.

Anselm says decreasing sales tax collection means no salary plans for police and firefighters.

"Over 82 percent of our budget is sales tax driven," says Anselm.

"Five years from now, an officer might be making the same amount as today.  We just don't know," says Shelby Howard, president of Joplin's police union.

Joplin emergency responders, past and present, agree with City leaders that tough choices are ahead.

"Sometimes that is choosing between amenities, quality of life, and protection," says Humphrey.

Members of Joplin's police and fire unions say a new City Council may need to decide to not spend as much money on maintaining parks; instead, using more tax dollars to help retain police and firefighters.

"When you lost guys in the ten year range, five year range, you just lost that amount of experience.  You've seen things that somebody who has been here two years hasn't seen," says Huddleston.

"We see a 20 year firefighter being replaced with a three year.  It takes years to replace that type of experience," says Humphrey.

Representatives from Joplin's police and fire unions believe the underlying problem is many City officials don't value emergency responders.

"The people of Joplin need to be worried, because the more people they lose, the less effective these guys can be," says Huddleston.

"You can't continue to treat police officers, firefighters, or anyone else in emergency operations the same as you treat everyone else in the City," says Howard.

"As a city manager, my first priority is taking care all of our employees, not just police and fire," says Anselm.

Joplin firefighters have left for Springfield and Northwest Arkansas fire departments, among other areas, for opportunities there to earn more money with continuing firefighter education and training.

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