Steamboat Springs Police Department aims to catch up to sheriff’s office with pay

Law enforcement agencies across Routt County are re-examining how they can increase their pay and retention. l John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Deputies at the Routt County Sheriff’s Office are currently starting at a salary about $13,000 higher than new officers with the Steamboat Springs Police Department.

The starting deputy salary — $72,000 as of Feb. 1 — beats out the starting officer’s pay of $29.57 an hour, which is about $61,505 a year.

Routt County recently conducted an employee salary survey to ensure its workers are being paid fairly and competitively, an effort to potentially prevent employees from seeking jobs elsewhere and make them feel valued for the work they do.

“One of the things we know that tends to be true is, in resort communities, the pay tends to be lower and the cost of living is higher,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton. “We don’t want to lose our staff to other places in the state. We want to be able to retain them.”

The county’s consultant compared county jobs across the state, not just at other resort communities, and found that Routt County was paying about 20% less than many counties across several positions, including its sheriff’s office. To combat this, the county raised its pay for deputies.

Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar said the pay increase was necessary to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living in Routt County.

“When we get out-of-town applicants, they’re interested in coming to work here, but when they look at the cost of living and the cost of rent, they back out because they could make more money on the Front Range, where it’s more affordable,” Scherar said.

Because the city pays its officers less than the county does its deputies, City Manager Gary Suiter said the city has faced challenges in hiring officers, when living in the same location and working for the sheriff’s office could be much more appealing due to the pay increase.

Suiter said the city plans to conduct a salary survey for all employees later in the year, but he hopes to address law enforcement pay sooner than that.

Police Chief Sherry Burlingame has appointed an employee task force to look at the issue and plans to bring a request for a pay increase to city council in the coming weeks, Suiter added in a written report to city council.

“Obviously, if people can’t afford to live here or they can’t find a house, they can’t be a police officer here,” Burlingame said in an interview.

Routt County’s two largest law enforcement agencies — the sheriff’s office and city police department — are still understaffed. The police department currently has 21 officers when it should have 29, and the sheriff’s office has 19 workers at the jail when it should have 23 and 19 on patrol when the office should have 21.

“I think it’s mostly because the cost of living in Routt County is so high,” Scherar said.

Difficulty hiring and retaining law enforcement officers is a nationwide issue, both Scherar and Burlingame said. Still, the two said negative sentiment toward law enforcement is likely only a small problem in Routt County.

“I think, for the most part, Routt County supports its emergency services,” Scherar said.

Still, Burlingame said the issue of retention comes down to more than pay. She wants to make sure officers feel valued and supported, both by the department and the community.

“Part of it is making sure people have that supportive environment and they’re compensated appropriately and don’t have to worry about putting food on the table,” Burlingame said. “But when I look at this problem, I don’t look at it as just throwing money at the issue.”

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