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Proposal to increase police chief salary is raising concerns

A Maui Police Commission recommendation to increase Police Chief John Pelletier’s annual salary by 29 percent is raising concerns in the community, as the Maui Police Department struggles with its largest shortage of officers ever.

“I got so disturbed about it,” Wailuku resident and businesswoman Leona Rocha Wilson said when she heard about the proposal. “I have nothing against John Pelletier. I do have a problem when somebody takes the job and within six weeks asks for a raise. What that means is he didn’t do his due diligence. The action is just improper.”

At a special meeting Feb. 2, the commission unanimously voted to recommend a pay raise to $205,000 a year for Pelletier, who was sworn in Dec. 17 at a salary of $158,851. The proposed increase, which would have to be approved by the Salary Commission, is more than the nearly 23 percent raise to $195,000 a year that Pelletier said he thought would be “fair.”

An increase in Pelletier’s pay would result in a pay raise for Deputy Chief Charles Hank III from $150,908 to $196,600, which is 4 percent less than the chief’s salary.

The Salary Commission is set to hear presentations from the Police Commission, Department of Liquor Control, Liquor Control Commission and Fire and Public Safety Commission at its online meeting that begins at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

Public testimony will be taken at the meeting, which can be viewed online at https://bluejeans.com/ 496858671. People can listen to the meeting by calling (408) 915-6290 and enter meeting ID 496 858 671.

Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura said she plans to testify at the meeting.

“He needs to earn his stripes just as anybody else,” she said of Pelletier. “Pay increases usually come with time.”

She said approving the Police Commission’s recommended increase “would disrupt the pay scale for the mayor and other department heads.”

Mayor Michael Victorino’s annual salary is $151,979.

The recommendation to increase the police chief’s pay is occurring while MPD is “dangerously understaffed,” with many patrol officers working 60 hours or more a week for over a year, said Sgt. Nick Krau, chapter chair of the Maui Chapter Board of Directors of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

At the end of last year, 101 of the 400 budgeted positions for MPD officers were unfilled for a vacancy rate of 25 percent.

“Maui police officers are exhausted and it is one of the reasons why we are so short staffed and are losing experienced officers,” Krau said.

Within the past week, four more officers have submitted their retirement paperwork, Krau said.

“It is disheartening that one of the first things the new chief is doing is seeking a pay raise for himself,” Krau said. “We would have appreciated a ‘rising tide lifts all of us’ approach and a collaborative approach to retain as many officers as we can and to recruit replacements to rebuild our department.”

Krau said police officers have been working without a pay raise for more than seven months since July 1.

“The members are frustrated, they are tired and they are wondering why the Maui County leadership is not looking out for them,” he said.

Officers who were due longevity pay step increases won’t receive those increases until after a new contract is signed, Krau said. “These longevity steps were designed to retain experienced officers serving the public,” he said.

While the statewide bargaining process for police officer pay raises differs from the Salary Commission approval of the chief’s pay, “the funding for these raises comes from the same pot of taxpayer funds,” Krau said.

“As all Maui residents know, it is incredibly expensive to live here,” Krau said. “We don’t begrudge the chief for advocating for himself for a pay raise, but what about the rest of us? We agree that competitive pay is important to attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

“Before increasing the chief’s pay, there must be a plan to increase the pay of Maui police officers so that we can retain and recruit enough officers to safely protect our residents and businesses. It is time for Maui leaders to create a plan to fully staff the Police Department and increasing pay for officers must be a part of that plan. If we wait another year to address this problem, we will be in dire straits.

“We support a pay raise for all police officers of all ranks. However, it is absolutely critical for the morale of our officers, as well as to retain experienced police officers, that we prioritize the officers first.”

In a letter to the editor of The Maui News, Lahaina resident Deyna Puckett questioned why the pay raise for Pelletier couldn’t wait until he was on the job for six months.

“I can tell you that right now the morale at Maui Police Department is as low as anyone working there has ever seen,” Puckett wrote. “Please, for the sake of the many honest and hardworking police officers at MPD, wait on the pay raise. It’s like a slap in the face to them.”

Lifetime Hana resident Claire Kamalu Carroll, who is active in the Hana Community Association, said that “with all respect to Chief Pelletier and Hank, I cannot support the proposed pay increase.”

“The public perception in our community is that Chief Pelletier has only begun the task he has been assigned, with less than three months on the job, and that a rate increase of his base salary is premature, given that a large portion of his moving expenses were funded by the taxpayers,” she said.

She noted that MPD is “experiencing a record-breaking loss of officers.”

“I have worked with many of these fine men and women in programs that directly affect residents in our community of all ages,” she said. “I and many in our community I have spoken with feel that a clarification by the Police Commission would better help the community understand their recommendations to increase the salary base to what they have proposed.”

Carroll said she believes retention of officers “is directly related to morale in the workplace and I feel that should be prioritized.”

“I respect the position that the chief is in and thank him for his efforts to empower the men and women under his command to do the best they possibly can, in service to our community,” she said.

Rocha Wilson said that if Pelletier wanted a pay raise, he should have negotiated that before being selected as chief and the Police Commission could have decided to eliminate him as a finalist.

“We have lots of qualified people here. Give them the opportunity,” she said. “What the Police Commission did — they took away dreams and hopes from our locals, from our local police officers.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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