Low pay, high cost of living send Nome police officers packing

Sandra L. Medearis

News for the guilty of conscience: Nome isn't exactly crawling with cops.

Nome Police Dept. is down to four officers on the street and a fifth on workers' compensation leave. Two Community Service Officers are helping pick up the slack.

Why would that be? Nome is short of police for a big handful of good reasons, according to Police Chief John Papasodora: low pay, housing costs, remote town, fewer benefits than those paid elsewhere and high cost of living -- 70 percent higher overall than Southcentral Alaska.

As an example, based on Papasodora's figures, food for a family of four for a week in Southcentral costs $170.64, in Nome, $308.53; heating oil per gallon in Anchorage, $3.79, in Nome, $6.25; electricity, about twice the cost in Nome compared to Anchorage.

The starting salary for Police Officer I candidates effective Jan. 1 this year was $25.54 per hour, or $4,086 per 160-hour work month.

Sgt. Ian Koenig moved on to Soldotna this month. Another officer is set to leave soon.

"We're going to have to give them something to keep them," Papasodora told Nome Common Council at a work session Dec. 13. They could make the same salary elsewhere but, with lower cost of living, enjoy a larger margin for disposable income.

Council members vowed to take a look at the issue. Papasodora handed out a "white paper" on the issue to guide them on their thinking.

"Exactly what are you asking?" offered Councilman Tom Sparks.

Well, for instance, said the chief, a relocation bonus, based on a three-year commitment.

Right now, "we are a training ground," Papasodora said, meaning green policemen come to work, get training, go through the academy in Sitka, get experience on their resumes and then leave for better pay, better benefits, lower cost of living and urban conditions.

Additionally, "we can work on upward mobility," Papasodora said.

And added to that, a housing stipend of $200 per month would help, on top of help getting to Nome with their families to take the job, he said.

"Some come up without their families. The separation becomes a stressor and incentive to leave," he said.

There is no local interest in working for Nome Police Department, Papasodora told the council. Shift work and the heavy responsibility stifled local applications. He hoped a boost in pay and benefits and opportunity for upward mobility in the job would help attract local hire, he said. Currently, almost all new hires come from outside the community.

Out-of-town applicants have to pay a steep price for airline tickets and then find an apartment with a large rent and deposit right off, Papasodora observed. Add to that, shipment of consumer goods, initial utility costs and basic transportation costs and a new recruit might lay out $5,000 or more.

Even when adding the cost-of-living allowance for police officers to the pay scale, Nome officers get less than other professionals in the community, according to Papasodora. Based on his research, police officers are in a different category than many other employees. They must take a polygraph test and undergo a deep background check. Out of, say, 70 applicants, five or six would qualify for hire, Papasodora said.

Few can pass the testing required by the Alaska Police Standards Council.

Hiring a "new" officer can take three months or more due to the complexity of the process.

Training the new officer can take most of the first year of employment.

Mayor Denise Michels suggested that perhaps Nome Police and the city could make a special arrangement in the general collective bargaining agreement to provide different working conditions for police personnel.

"Last time I talked about that, I was threatened by the union with an injunctive relief citation," Papasodora said.

The council will discuss police personnel retention in work session.

"If we are going to incentivize outside hire, we need to do the same for local hires," councilman Tom Sparks said.

Looking at making the job attractive to local applicants involves measurable and predictable monetary issues," Papasodora said.


Nome Nugget