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Va. city to spend $2.7 million for police ‘retention’ bonuses

The decision came after a neighboring city began offering $5,000 recruitment bonuses to any officer in the state

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By Gordon Rago
The Virginian-Pilot

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Chesapeake council members unanimously approved spending $2.7 million to offer its police officers and some sheriff’s deputies a cash “retention” bonus.

But at least one police representative is worried the move won’t be enough to keep officers happy until Chesapeake addresses pay gaps between competing cities.

The decision, made at Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting, comes about a month after neighboring Virginia Beach offered $5,000 recruitment bonuses to any certified officer in the state, a step meant to fill vacancies in that city.

“You shouldn’t have to feel like you have to leave the city of Chesapeake to chase $5,000,” City Manager Chris Price said before the vote, addressing a City Hall chambers packed with law enforcement.

Like in Virginia Beach, officials in Chesapeake have complained about police shortages: Chesapeake employs 364 officers and is down 41, a department spokesman told The Pilot earlier this month.

Dianna Baker, a secretary with the Chesapeake Fraternal Order of Police, told the city council that staffing levels are so low that it will affect officers responding to emergency calls. As a result, she said, low-priority calls might have to be taken as phone or online reports.

There are “substantial” salary differences to be made up between Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, Baker said. She said Chesapeake officers often talk about their counterparts across the border making $20,000 more.

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Baker said the retention bonus is “necessary but it’s not sufficient.” She said the salary difference could cause Chesapeake to lose more experienced officers, especially in the time it takes for the city to complete a pay and classification study that will look at how its salaries, benefits and staff structure compare with other municipalities and the private sector.

“I question whether they can hold on until the pay study is complete,” Baker said at the meeting.

Price said he has told city staff to speed up the portion of the pay study that addresses public safety employees and hopes to bring a vote to council in October.

Toward the end of the meeting, at least four council members expressed interest in giving officers more competitive pay.

“We will fix the salary competitiveness issue,” Councilman Steve Best said. “We are committed to this. This is the first step. We are pledging to you, we are going to fix this.”

Diana Tharp, a retired Chesapeake police sergeant and president of the Chesapeake FOP, said in a phone call after the vote that she’s pleased with the outcome.

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