CLINTON — The Board of Selectmen has approved raises for the police and fire departments, hoping to make the departments more competitive with others in the area to recruit and retain employees.

“What we’re saying is that is in the current environment (these salaries are) no longer sufficient to retain our people,” Town Manager Earla Haggerty said at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting.

Haggerty asked the police and fire chiefs to suggest pay raises after the board chose not to move the departments to a more competitive retirement plan through the Maine Public Employees Retirement System last month. The board voted to make that change effective next July 2022, so that the expense can be built into next year’s budget.

The changes come as police and fire departments across the state struggle to retain employees, and town’s attempt to offer incentives. Nearby Pittsfield has broadened the town’s residency requirement and is offering a $15,000 bonus for new officers.

In the Clinton police department, the change will create a new pay structure as well as increasing hourly rates. Currently, the starting pay with no experience is $18 an hour, said Clinton Police Chief Stanley “Rusty” Bell. After some training the rate increases to $19 an hour and once the officer has completed the full-time police academy training that goes up to $22 an hour.

The new pay scale will increase officer’s hourly rate based on training and experience over time. The starting pay with no experience will be raised to $20 an hour. After 12 months in Clinton, an officer’s wage will be raised to $22 an hour. After graduating from the police academy, the rate will be $24 an hour.

After two years that will increase to $25 an hour, and after 36 months that goes to $27 an hour. After that the pay increases by $1 an hour each year, until it maxes out at $30 an hour after six years.

“I came up with that to try to create some retention and try to attract some people that might be working for another department,” Bell said.

For this fiscal year, the department will pay for the raises by using funding that was originally allocated for a third police officer. The department currently has two full-time officers, and Bell said he would prefer to use that money to retain the two officers he has, instead of try and hire a third person.

Part of why it is so important to retain employees, Bell said, is that it lets officers become more familiar with the community. “Having that institutional knowledge that’s built up over a few years, is just priceless in dealing with families,” Bell said.

In discussing the proposal, Selectman Brian Bickford said that Clinton has “been chasing this for years” but that in the end Clinton’s tax base is smaller than the surrounding towns the department is trying to compete with on wages.

At the fire department, Chief Travis Leary said that employees currently make around $14-16 an hour, depending on the level of license an employee holds. The raise will increase that range to around $17.50-18.50 an hour.

Unlike the police, the fire department does not have any wiggle room in the budget to pay for the raises. Instead the money for the raises — which comes to about $16,000 — will come from the town’s overlay fund, which is an emergency contingency account controlled by the Board of Selectmen.

While the motion to approve the police department raises passed unanimously on Tuesday, there was more debate about the fire department and the use of overlay. Some selectmen were concerned that the issue did not qualify to be used from overlay, and that it may be seen as circumventing the budget process since it is an expense that was not approved by voters at the Town Meeting in June.

“I do have a problem with sort of circumventing the usual budgetary process and declaring salary adjustment to be an unanticipated department expense is kind of a slippery slope,” said Chairman Jeffrey Towne.

Selectmen also considered holding a special town meeting election in November, although Haggerty pointed out that would also take time and money to set up.

Haggerty said that article 36 of the town warrant, as was approved by voters in June, stated that overlay funds can be transferred for payments of “unanticipated employee separation/new hire benefits, property tax abatements and corrections, unanticipated liabilities, deductibles, and expenses that would harm a specific departmental budget.”

The staffing concerns in the fire department were unanticipated, Haggerty said, and not taking money from the overlay fund would harm the department’s budget.

“I think it meets the language of the article,” Haggerty said.

Leary also said that while he understands the board’s concerns, if the fire department is understaffed, it will require more overtime from the employees, which has caused the department to exceed its budget in the past.

After much discussion the fire department’s raises passed 3-2, with Selectmen Geraldine Dixon and Bickford voting against it. Both said that they were not against the raises for the fire department but were opposed the use of overlay funds.

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