Report: Utica police, firefighters among highest paid in region

| Utica Observer-Dispatch

On one hand, he said, officers do make a good salary.

But it’s also dangerous work.

“There’s a reason why those benefits and salary are there,” he said.

Police officers and firefighters in the city are among the highest paid government employees in the six-county Mohawk Valley region, according to a recent report by the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit independent think tank based in Albany.

According to the report, which used pay data reported to the New York State and Local Retirement System between April 1, 2014, and March 31, 2015, members of the Utica police and fire departments were paid an average of $71,560.

Other departments included in the report were New Hartford, with an average pay of $68,086; Gloversville, $67,026; Rome, $64,178; Johnstown, $61,545; Amsterdam, $61,534; Little Falls, $41,610; and Sherrill, $18,445.

Utica general employees, meanwhile, receive average pay of $36,562, which is in line with other cities in the Mohawk Valley, according to the report. Mayor Robert Palmieri’s pay for the current year is about $77,000.

Overtime is included in those figures, but not benefits such as health insurance and pensions, said Ken Girardin, marketing and communications manager for the Empire Center.

“We’ll show you the pay here,” Girardin said. “Because we do it through the pension system, we can’t show the breakdown of salary versus overtime, so that’s why we’re very careful to use the word ‘pay.’ We very much avoid the word ‘salary’ unless we see the actual individual payroll records, which in this case we haven’t.”

When benefits are factored in, those numbers “swell up substantially, particularly with police officers,” he added.

Utica’s pay lags behind Schenectady, a similarly-sized city where police and fire employees earned an average of $86,060. In Binghamton, officers and firefighters are paid an average of $66,375, according to the report.

“I feel that they get compensated fairly,” said Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks. “I’m aware of the work they do. They’re out there … putting their lives on the line fighting fires, dealing with chemicals and also they’re responding to medical calls. It’s a fairly complex job.”

Other cities across the state sometimes pay much more, the report shows. The city of Glen Cove on Long Island tops the list, paying an average of $150,392 for 50 employees.

“All this pay is with respect to the cost of living,” Girardin said. “It’s also with respect to the ability of the municipalities to afford it.”

He said that’s particularly true when you get to the town and city level where they’re more dependent on the property tax levy as opposed to a county where there is sales-tax revenue.

But despite offering the highest pay in the region, Williams said he is seeing officers leave for smaller towns outside of the Mohawk Valley such as Manlius, which pays an average of $77,268, according to the report, and Brighton in Monroe County that pays an average of $97,727. The department also loses officers to the New York State Police, where troopers can earn more money.

“That usually hasn’t happened in the past,” Williams said of officers leaving, “but it’s a trend that we’re starting to see and it’s kind of puzzling now.”

The trend became noticeable in 2012 on the heels of officers being demoted and laid off as a result of the city’s budget, Williams said.

“It comes down to pay,” he said. “I know some of the officers we spoke to in an exit interview said it was the residency issue and some were just looking for a job that wasn’t as fast paced.”

Still, Williams believes his officers are underpaid.

“I always felt my officers did not get paid enough,” he said. “We have one of the most dangerous jobs in this county.”

© 2016 Utica Observer-Dispatch