Firefighter paramedic Christopher Carter checks out the reserve fire engine as firefighters get ready for their shift at the Richland Hills Fire Rescue station. Rodger Mallison rmallison@star-telegram.com
Firefighter paramedic Christopher Carter checks out the reserve fire engine as firefighters get ready for their shift at the Richland Hills Fire Rescue station. Rodger Mallison rmallison@star-telegram.com

Northeast Tarrant

Vote on pay raise for Richland Hills first responders could mean tax hike and layoffs

By Elizabeth Campbell

liz@star-telegram.com

October 06, 2017 01:45 PM

RICHLAND HILLS

Residents could see cuts in city services and employees could face layoffs if voters approve a proposition to increase pay and benefits for first responders.

On Nov. 7 voters will weigh in on whether salaries and benefits for police officers and firefighters should be increased to reflect what their peers make in other Tarrant County cities.

The referendum was called after several residents submitted a petition in February with the necessary 250 signatures from registered voters to force the city council to either call an election or approve the proposal outright.

Gerrit Spieker, who helped organize the petition drive, said he is concerned about the high turnover rate in the police and fire departments and slow response times, claims that are disputed by city officials.

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“We have a constant lack of having a police force and a constant lack of replacing them,” Spieker said. “We’re left with minimum coverage of residential areas resulting in crimes like car break-ins.”

There were no specific crime incidents cited, but Spieker said he read reports of car break-ins and theft on the social media site, NextDoor.

Spieker said it is difficult to recruit officers when salaries are lower than those paid in the cities listed in the petition, all larger than Richland Hills, which has 7,920 residents, according to North Central Texas Council of Government estimates.

Salaries vs. population

A police officer’s average salary in Richland Hills is $51,006, which is lower than the starting salaries in the cities listed in the petition, including:

  • Fort Worth: $54,312; population 815,430
  • Haltom City: $57,238; population 42,740
  • North Richland Hills: $56,312; population 67,120

But it’s closer to cities with smaller populations, which are not included in the petition, including:

  • Kennedale: $44,611, population 7,420
  • Trophy Club, $51,001, population 11,250

Richland Hills City Manager Eric Strong sent a memo to council members in July to seek input on how the city would come up with the funds to pay for the additional salary and benefits if the proposition passes.

A proposition on the Nov. 7 ballot in Richland Hills wants to get salaries for first responders more in line with other Tarrant County cities, including Fort Worth.
Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

If the proposition passes, the city would have to come up with a minimum of $860,000 just to cover salary increases, retirement and taxes, and determine how to factor in benefits such as health insurance, Strong said.

Strong estimates that Richland Hills would need over $1 million to cover the extra expense if the vote passes, but he doesn’t know where the money will come from.

In his memo, Strong said that if voters approve the proposition, Richland Hills would need to consider drastic scenarios such as cutting or eliminating programs, staff layoffs, contracting out services and tax increases. The city also would lose the authority to determine the amounts of salaries and benefits, he said.

‘Apples to oranges’

Richland Hills did a salary comparison study to cities similar in population and size and determined that some salaries were slightly above average while others were below the Richland Hills average, Strong said.

Richland Hills Police Chief Barbara Childress said the department, with 24 employees, has five positions to fill, and that the department has seen turnover, but it is not because officers are leaving for higher paying jobs. Some are retiring, others are switching careers.

We are all struggling right now,” Childress said referring to police departments throughout the country recruiting officers. “ Some are less interested in becoming police officers.”

Fire chief Russell Shelley said that any turnover the department has seen is not because of the salaries.

“The biggest challenge that we face with this petition is that we are being asked to compare ourselves to communities where we don’t have any similarities other than we are a fire department and border those cities,” Shelley said. “We are dealing with apples to oranges.”

Elizabeth Campbell: 817-390-7696, @fwstliz