The Meridian Police Department is on track to start the hiring process for 11 new patrol officers later this year.
City staff added salaries for three more patrol officer positions to the fiscal year 2020 budget after a budget hearing on Monday. That is on top of the eight new patrol officers that city finance staff had planned for, as well as a canine officer and police training sergeant.
The 11 new patrol officers are anticipated to increase the department’s budget by $1.4 million, which includes two new vehicles for the officers, according to Meridian Chief Financial Officer Todd Lavoie. The department’s budget and the total fiscal year 2020 budget will be finalized and presented to Meridian City Council later this month. If approved, it will be published for public approval and adopted Oct. 1.
The new patrol officers will bring the Meridian Police Department up to 127 officers and 28 supporting staff, said Jeff Lavey, Meridian police chief. Even then, the department would still need three more officers to keep up with the city’s growth.
As the city expands and police receive more calls, it becomes harder for staff to do proactive things like patrolling. Lavey said it’s possible the department may need to cancel vacation requests in the future because it is so understaffed.
Historically, Meridian police have had trouble finding enough candidates to keep up with the city’s growth.
“We do what we can; we hire as we get positions,” Lavey said. “It is a continuous struggle when you have a growing city.”
In 2010, Meridian had a population of 75,092. This year, the population is estimated at 114,680, according to a document from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
The longest the department has been at full staffed was for three weeks several year ago, Lavey said. Last year, the council approved eight new positions, and the department is in the last steps of hiring those staff.
Lavey said along with the growth, there are concerns about filling the positions of the 35 police personnel who will be eligible to retire in the next five years. This year, two staff members have retirements planned.
“One thing we’re finding across the United States is police departments are having trouble filling positions,” Lavey said, noting that “people have realized they don’t want to do the job” because there can be a poor public perception of police officers. Lavey said the department also gets interest from people who have made bad choices, like drug use or certain crimes, that either eliminate them from ever serving, or from serving for a long period of time.
The Boise Police Department saw a dip in applications in recent years, according to Ryan Larrondo, Boise police information specialist. Since November 2017, applications for open officer positions have dipped by around 100 applications — decreasing from 375 to 247 application in November 2018.
On Tuesday, Larrondo said the Boise Police Department was fully staffed, having hired 39 new officers since November 2017.
On Monday, several members of city council spoke in favor of funding more positions for patrol officers if the department would be able to fill them.
Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd said every year money allotted for police department personnel goes unspent. Lavey said it’s been “as high as $1 million that goes back,” noting he can’t remember a year where money wasn’t put back in the budget. Lavey said salaries for new personnel start at the beginning of the fiscal year in October.
“I may not hire until April, but I get funding in October,” he said.
Councilman Ty Palmer said Monday that even if the department isn’t able to fill them this year, having open positions on the books is a good recruiting tactic. Lavey agreed, stating that applicants are more likely to apply to an agency if they know there are positions open.
Lavoie, with the city, said there’s no harm in budgeted money not being spent, “we just like to have a high execution rate. We don’t want to budget a dollar and not spend it.”
The cost from the additional three officers means the city will need to take a property tax increase. Lavoie said several numbers need to be finalized before he’ll know how much of the state allowed 3% tax increase the city will ask to take in its proposed fiscal year 2020 budget.