Ky. city sees recruitment, retention success as public safety vacancies drop
Almost all of Lexington's public safety divisions have struggled with turnover since the pandemic
By Madison Carter
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Some Lexington public safety divisions have seen a decline in vacancies over the last eight months after the city upped starting pay, according to data presented to a Lexington committee.
Public Safety Commissioner Ken Armstrong told the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council Social Services and Public Safety Committee Tuesday that community corrections and E911 saw decreases in vacancies according to new data collected in June.
Community corrections, which had 124 vacancies in October, had the greatest amount of decreased vacancies with 32 filled positions, Armstrong said.
Community corrections also has two new recruit classes, which will help fill vacant positions, Armstrong said. Community correction officers manage inmates to promote positive behavior and keep jails safe.
E911, which had 22 vacancies in October, is now down to 14 vacancies. E911 includes call takers and dispatchers.
Almost all public safety divisions have struggled with frequent turnover since the coronavirus pandemic. Police and the department of corrections vacancies have topped more than 100 over the past several years. The city and council dramatically increased starting pay for police, corrections, E911 and firefighters over the past several years to help curb vacancies.
For example, starting salary for correction officers went from $32,000 in 2020 to $50,348 in 2023, a roughly $18,000 pay bump.
Corrections and 911 also recruit, train and hire year-round.
Police and fire just started recruit training classes for workers who will be eligible for the increased pay. Armstrong said the city will have to monitor how the bumps in pay will help with fire and police recruitment.
While the fire department saw an increase in vacancies, that data was impacted by the SAFER grant they received which increased authorized strength by 21, Armstrong said.
The police department was the only division that went in the “wrong direction” with an additional five vacancies making the total 91, Armstrong said. In October it had 86 vacancies.
Starting pay for police increased $15,353 from 2020 to 2023. The new starting salary is $56,410.
Lexington Assistant Police Chief Eric Lowe said there was a 20% increase in applicants for the October class.
The increase in pay has likely contributed to a jump in applicants, Armstrong said.
When public safety is short, overtime increases, data presented Tuesday showed.
Fire and the department of corrections have mandatory overtime policies, meaning if the department is short, someone must fill those positions. Overtime for the fire department topped $5 million in 2022, data showed. Firefighters worked an average of 3.3 hours of overtime per week in 2022. Overtime in corrections was $2.8 million in 2022.
The biggest inhibitors to recruitment have been the employment process, the change in attitudes toward public service, scheduling preferences and the dangers of the job, Armstrong said.
“Many cities are facing the same challenges we have when it comes to hiring people, but especially in the public safety fields,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said cities that have dramatically cut vacancies have done so by slashing job requirements.
“They are lowering their standards,” Armstrong said. “Unacceptable. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Armstrong said the one thing the council and the public can do to support the public safety team is to give recognition for the sacrifice the employees make and vocalize their appreciation.
“We have made a number of changes, especially over the last year, and I’m getting some positive feedback,” Armstrong said.
Retention, recruitment of minorities
Councilwoman Denise Gray questioned how all departments are recruiting minority populations.
There has been a decrease in the number of minority people applying for public safety jobs, Armstrong said.
The police department has a diversity recruitment committee to provide feedback on how to recruit diverse populations, Lowe said. The department is also one of the sponsors of the Lexington Bluegrass Area Minority Business Expo where they will be recruiting in July.
The fire department looks for representation in every phase of the hiring process, Lexington Assistant Fire Chief Rob Larkin told the committee. The department also is working to recruit locally and build relationships with technical schools since only 34.7% of the department is from Fayette County.
E911 Director Jonelle Patton said the division has been successful in maintaining and recruiting African Americans but they are having difficulty finding Spanish-speaking staff.
Fayette County Detention Center Director Scott Colvin said community corrections minority staffing is between 23-25%, earning the division a reputation for being “a diverse and inclusive organization.”
Public safety pay increases
Since 2020, the city has upped salaries and given bonuses to help recruit and retain police, fire, corrections and 911 staff. Here’s a breakdown of starting salary increases and bonuses:
2020 starting salary: $41,057
2023 starting salary: $56,410
Bonuses: $5,000 one-time COVID payment for all sworn officers; $3,000 sign-on bonus for new employees; retention pay of $1,760 for officers and sergeants in 2022; retention pay of $2,240 for 2023. Officers also get a $4,000 training allowance from the state. That number increased to $4,300 in 2022.
2020 starting pay: $42,536
2023 starting pay: $51,624
Bonuses: $5,000 one-time COVID payment; $2,000 bonus in 2022; Firefighters receive a $4,000 training allowance from the state which increased to $4,300 in 2022.
2020 starting pay: $32,000
2023 starting pay: $50,348
Bonuses: $5,000 one-time COVID payment; one-time retention payment of $4,000; New employee bonus of $3,500
2020 starting pay for call takers: $37,232
2020 starting pay for dispatchers: $43,106
2023 starting pay for call takers: $45,968
2023 starting pay for dispatchers: $50,679
Bonuses: $3,500 one-time COVID payment; one-time retention pay $4,000; $3,000 recruitment payment for employees hired between October 2022 and June 2023.