With a room full of police officers to back him up, Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant on Wednesday made a pitch for better pay and benefits for officers in the department.

Sergeant presented his plan to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Council members Ivan Whitfield, Joni Alexander and committee Chairman Win Trafford, who were joined by Council Members Glen Brown Jr. Steven Mays and Bruce Lockett for the meeting.

The chief was responding to requests by the committee in previous meetings for incentives and benefits that officers wanted and things that would attract and keep qualified people on the force.

While an increase in the clothing allowance and additional vacation days for senior officers were things Sergeant said were important, the biggest need is an increase in the starting salary.

Currently, the starting salary for a new officer, certified or non-certified, is $30,486 annually. By contrast, the starting salary for a Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy is $31,546 for a deputy who is not certified and $32,813 for a deputy who is certified

At White Hall, the starting salary for a non-certified officer is $32,500 and $34,920 for certified officers.

“We can’t compete with White Hall,” Sergeant said. “They’re beginning to look like Pine Bluff North.”

Also, officers at White Hall receive an additional $500 for each year they stay with the department, up to 10 years so a White Hall Officer who has been there 10 years is paid $39,200 annually.

The starting salary for officers at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is $36,464.

Sergeant said currently, a Pine Bluff Police Officer’s starting hourly rate is $14.83 which is less than the starting salary for a cashier at Wal Mart who makes $15 an hour.

The department is currently 20 officers short and Sergeant said the low starting salary is hindering recruiting efforts. He said he was approached by a former officer who wanted to come back but instead accepted a job with another department that offered a higher salary.

His solution is to increase the starting salary for a Pine Bluff Police Officer to $34,000 annually, or an increase of $3,154 per officer. If all 20 empty positions were filed next year, it would cost the city $63,080.

Under his proposal, an officer who gets their certification after a year would receive a $1,000 increase in pay, up to $35,000, and an additional $1,500 after they complete their second year. There would be annual increase up to 20 years for all ranks with the exception of Chief, whose salary is set by the City Council.

Sergeant provided the committee information on the salary and benefits of other departments in cities of comparable size, West Memphis, North Little Rock, Hot Springs, Texarkana, Benton and Conway and the starting salary in each of those cities is higher than the starting salary at Pine Bluff. In addition, Sergeant said that based on call logs, officers are dispatched t an average of 25 calls, many of them of a hazardous nature.

At previous meetings, it was suggested that Sergeant not fill 10 of the currently vacant positions and use the funds already in the budget to increase current salaries but on Wednesday, he again voiced his opposition to that idea.

He said that when he started with the department, it was authorized 167 officers. Over the years, that number has been reduced to 141 . “There’s a need for those positions,” Sergeant said. “I’m not asking for an excess. It’s what I need to operate the department.”

Sergeant said that because of the shortages, he has had to take officers out of specialized divisions like Detectives and move them to patrol so that calls can be answered. That, he said. is hampering the work of detectives in solving crimes and working to reduce the number of crimes.

“It’s time we sat down in a room and see what we can do,” he said.

Committee chairman Trafford that the city will soon be looking at the first installment of funds generated from the opening of the Saracen casino annex, what he said was “new money.”

“That money is not promised and we can look at putting it toward public safety,” Trafford said.

He also said he will schedule a special, called meeting of the committee to start working on salary and benefits increases for both the police and fire departments.