Sandy Springs police officers and firefighters may soon receive housing-cost stipends to help them live in the increasingly expensive city they serve.

A rough draft of the stipend policy got a favorable response from Sandy Springs City Council Oct. 20. Retaining personnel, boosting public safety and showing thanks to the police were the main rationales.

“I think it’s almost immoral to ask police and firefighters to lay their lives on the line for a community in which they cannot afford to live,” said Mayor Rusty Paul.

Most of the policy discussion focused on police. Today, only 14 of the department’s 128 sworn officers live in the city, according to Police Chief Kenneth DeSimone. Only one of the 14 lives in a single-family home, he added.

“Housing costs are high,” said City Manager John McDonough.

The only current housing-related perk available to officers is permission to take their vehicle home if they live within 20 miles of the city, DeSimone said. However, most local apartment complexes offer reduced—sometimes even free—rent to police officers, DeSimone added.

Enabling officers and firefighters to live close to their stations would improve employee retention and boost their ability to respond to emergencies while off-duty, McDonough and Paul said. McDonough said it’s also a way to “show our appreciation as a community for these individuals.”

DeSimone said he is especially worried about competition for jobs if voters approve new cities—with new police departments—in north DeKalb.

“I can tell you where they’re going to come get their police officers,” he said. “They’re going to poach them.”

McDonough said that Brookhaven and Dunwoody offer housing assistance for police officers. In Brookhaven, eligible officers can receive up to $400 per month for two years, then lower stipends for up to five years. In Dunwoody, there’s a general housing fund divided among eligible officers, averaging to around $300 to $400 per month.

The Sandy Springs draft proposal is $500 per month with a $3,500 cap. McDonough recommended it as a pilot program available to five police officers and five firefighters. In response to councilmen’s questions, McDonough said he will refine the proposed policy to possibly expand the available stipends and better define the eligibility standards.

Among the councilmen’s questions was whether police officers actually want to live in the city. DeSimone acknowledged that some officers indeed “don’t want to go out and write [their] neighbor a speeding ticket.” But many others would be attracted to a shorter commute, he said.

The council’s overall response was positive. “That’s a great investment,” said Councilman Gabriel Sterling, while Councilman John Paulson said, “Everybody feels better that there’s a policeman nearby.”

Besides the housing stipend idea, McDonough said the city is looking at revising its pay and benefits packages for public safety officers to keep up with other cities’ competition.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.