Local News Post-Tribune

Munster council approves salary bump for police despite residents’ concerns for town’s finances

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The Munster Town Council sealed its Police Department’s position in the top five highest-paid departments in Lake County Thursday night.

With some modifications to the ordinance the council approved 4-1 at its meeting on April 15, the council unanimously gave the Munster Police Department its second raise of the year at its Thursday night meeting.

The department received its first raise of 4.6% with the rest of the town employees at the first of the year.

The new increases, which will kick in June 21, will give First Class officers a 6% to 21% raise, bringing their average salaries to $88,000 from $84,000, the Post-Tribune previously reported. Sergeants will receive a 5% to 15% raise; and Police Chief Steve Scheckel who, according to the Indiana Gateway was paid $122,844.14 in 2023, will get a $25,000 raise, bringing his salary to $147,844.14.

It also removes the current car stipends — using them to help pay for the raises — but gives officers take-home cars instead.

Also, probationary and Second Class officers won’t be included in the raises, the Post-Tribune previously reported, but the ordinance changes the incoming officer hourly rate to $31.44.

Before this latest increase, the average salary for Munster police ranked fourth in Lake County, according to public salary data on Indiana Gateway, behind East Chicago, Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and St. John.

Resident Kevin Cappo, prior to the vote, told the council that giving $400,000 in raises to the police would “disadvantage all other town staff.”

“There has been no ‘great exodus,’” Cappo said, referring to Ward 5 Councilman Jonathan Petersen’s assertion at the last meeting that officers have been leaving Munster because their pay was too low. “We need to pay within our means. Everyone wants everything: When a kid asks for (a big ticket item), do you just give it to them because they want it? Also, averages can be skewed; they should’ve used the median (to determine if raises were appropriate).”

Resident Ryan Dean added that the department should’ve looked at more departments besides St. John before deciding on the $400,000 figure. Dyer — which, like Munster, borders Illinois — has a major corridor that sees 35,000 vehicles per day yet pays its First Class Officers $70,130.52 and its chief $107,071.84 per year. Per the 2024 Safewise rankings, Dyer is ranked #3 in the state, Dean said.

Munster, on the other hand, has a corridor that sees 16,516 cars per day and is ranked #5 in the state by Safewise, Dean said.

“I ask again what study was done besides looking at St. John and saying we need to beat that?” Dean said. “St. John also has one of the worst park and recreation departments in the area, which leads to my point of what are you cutting or depleting to pay for these salaries? I already know the answer is our (tax increment financing), which should be used to develop and maintain our town infrastructure.”

Council President Dave Nellans near the start of the meeting said there’s been concern that the town isn’t “financially solvent” after last month’s meeting, when Comptroller and interim Town Manager Patricia Abbott told the council that the town could put itself in trouble if it decided it wanted to use the TIF to perpetually fund the police raises. That’s not the case, he said.

“I want to assure you that the town is very much solvent,” Nellans said, adding that the TIF will have $3 million in it when all is said and done, plus the town has access to its portion of the Local Income Tax, which is $3.1 million that can be used for public safety expenses. “This was really looked at.”

Abbott said after the meeting that the town could fund the raises and that it was this council’s priority to do so. How long it will be able to do so, however, remains an open question.

Abbott told the council at its last meeting that its plan to give the department another $400,000 starting June 21 — on top of officers getting a salary bump at the start of the year — would have “serious ramifications for the town’s financial health,” the Post-Tribune previously reported. The council ultimately voted 4-1, with Councilman Chuck Gardiner, R-3, casting the lone “No” vote, to approve on first reading the salary ordinance.

Gardiner said Munster has had 23 officers leave since 2016: Three left for medical reasons, 10 retired, two relocated, and five resigned, while only three officers left for other departments, the Post-Tribune previously reported.

Michelle L. Quinn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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Michelle L. Quinn , 2024-05-11 19:07:57

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