The Athens City Council discussed giving city police officers and firefighters a raise to their base pay during a special-called work session Monday.

Mayor Ronnie Marks has spent the last few months asking the Council to set aside time to discuss the possibility of changing the safety plan pay scale. Marks suggested the Council add $6,000 to the base salary for city police and $3,000 for firefighters in order to make their pay more comparable to departments in those other locations.

Marks told the Council the pay increase would cost the city about $650,000 annually, and he also suggested how the City of Athens could pay that sum for the first year, maybe two.

“When we adopted the 1% sales tax increase in 2012, part of that was a contingency,” he said. “From that we have set aside money, I think it was 20%, and we haven't tapped into that for a number of years. We have funds in there that would certainly get us through Year One, I think it would get us through Year Two and then we would have to roll it into the overall pay plan.”

The hope is this increase in base pay will aid city police and fire in recruiting more and better candidates. Police Chief Floyd Johnson told the Council that the lower pay in Athens makes it harder to keep officers with the city with higher salaries to be found elsewhere in north Alabama.

“I think it is critical to raise this base pay and get it on the same level as much as we can,” Marks said. “Let's face it, these young folks are trying to make a living for their families. Going somewhere else for a $5,000 raise is a no brainer.”

While the population of Athens — 28,000 — may be around half that of Decatur or Madison, the number of residents is expected to continue to rise over the coming years as the city experiences growth. Marks said he expects Athens to soon hold 35,000 residents.

A breakdown of what other departments in the area pay their police officers or firefighters was provided to the Council during the session. As it stands, the base annual salary for new members of Athens Police Department is $36,067.20, about $7,000 a year less than the starting base pay for Limestone County sheriff's deputies.

It is also less than several surrounding cities and counties, including Madison County ($40,747.20), troopers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency ($41,277.20), Madison ($42,964.48) and Huntsville ($46,675).

The base salary for new members of Athens Fire & Rescue is $33,320.04, which is lower than Florence ($34,506.72), Hartselle ($35,971.20), Madison ($36,489.44), Decatur ($37,285.87) and Huntsville ($38, 979.20).

Pay scale steps

Another area that may be addressed in the future is the number of steps in the City of Athens public safety pay plan. Currently, Athens has 11 steps, which means new officers or firefighters would be topped out after 11 years with a positive performance review. Marks said each step gives a 3% raise in Athens.

Compare that to Decatur with 18 steps, Madison with 21 and Huntsville with 25. Once an officer or firefighter is topped out on steps, it takes either a promotion — which Johnson said are “few and far between” — or a cost-of-living adjustment to get a raise.

Marks said the issue of potentially increasing the number of steps may have to wait for a later date, with priority going to base pay first.

Johnson and Interim Fire Chief James Hand also told the Council base pay was more important than the number of steps to their respective departments at this time.

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