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Healdsburg's City Council this week approved hiring another police officer but required that the new officer receive less generous pension benefits than current officers.

"All of us desperately want to allow the chief to fill the position," said Mayor Gary Plass. "We want to be creative."

The boost in police ranks comes as the Police Officers Association and the city put finishing touches on a new contract that reduces pension benefits for new hires.

"The agreement is all but done," Plass said.

Plass and Councilman Tom Chambers also are running for re-election in November, and council critics and candidate Vernon Simmons have said the city needs to do more to restrain the costs of employee benefits and salaries.

Escalating pension costs for public employees have been a hot topic both statewide and nationally as governments face budget cuts and because private sector workers don't enjoy the same benefits.

City Council members said they want to ensure new officers are part of a "second tier" for pension benefits, the formula that will be applied under the new contract.

Instead of the current system of being eligible to retire at age 50 with 3 percent of salary for every year of service, new officers would only get 2 percent of salary for every year.

Chambers said that second tier is critical to preserve the workforce.

"We want everybody at the city to keep their job," he said, adding it's necessary "so we can hire people and they can be here a long time."

The City Council in the past few years has trimmed the city's workforce and passed budgets that require dipping into general fund reserves.

In the latest round of budget balancing for the fiscal year that began July 1, the council authorized 15 police officers, below the high of 18 of three years ago.

Police Chief Kevin Burke said that because of an on-duty injury and illness, only 13 officers actually are available.

In a memo, he said the department "is already having difficulty and will have increasing difficulty in maintaining minimum staffing standards for a city of 11,000 residents, while also providing the high quality of law enforcement services that the people of Healdsburg have come to expect."

Staffing will become a greater problem when a supervisor leaves Aug. 19, when a lieutenant retires in February and if an officer now testing with another agency quits.

Burke said overtime increased about 12 percent for the fiscal year that just ended. But he said the department's ability to fill gaps with overtime is limited because of employee vacations and unexpected situations.

Hiring a new officer is "not like hiring someone in a retail store. It takes months and months," said Plass, a retired police sergeant.

He noted applicants have to pass oral and written tests, background checks and psychological screening.

Burke said the hiring process takes at least four months.

To remedy the situation, <NO1><NO>he <NO1><NO>sought and obtained authority from the council to temporarily go up to 16 officers if necessary, with the expectation the force will revert to 15 officers by early next year.

But Burke was able to expedite the process: After the council's discussion Monday, he hired Reserve Officer Ian Benner as a full-time regular officer Aug. 19 when the supervisor leaves.

Benner is being hired as a temporary full-time employee and will get the second-tier pension, City Manager Marjie Pettus said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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