A 2.8 percent pay boost for every Sandy Springs police officer is part of the city budget that went into effect July 1. The pay raise followed City Council meetings during which officials feared losing officers to the Georgia State Patrol after a recent pay hike there and mentioned the issue of officers not being able to afford to live in the city.

But the discussions did not include any details of current police salaries. The police department’s June payroll, obtained by the Reporter, shows that median salaries for the three ranks of patrol-level officers range from $44,000 to $56,000. New recruits are paid $41,000 to $42,025.

That’s already close to the State Patrol, whose 20 percent pay raise this year increased its force’s median salary to about $46,600, according to media reports. On the other hand, even with the raise, the median salaries of Sandy Springs police officers will remain below the area’s median income, calculated by the U.S. Census for housing policy purposes as $60,219.

Commanding officers make higher pay. The department has four officers who make over $100,000 a year, including Chief Ken DeSimone at $153,015 and Deputy Chief Keith Zgonc at $108,701, along with two majors.

Police officials say that the hiring and retention concern related to pay is not so much about the State Patrol, which has a limited number of openings anyway. It’s more about staying competitive with other nearby police departments. And pay is one factor in retaining officers against the real draw: private security jobs that will always have higher salaries and lower stress.

“As much as departments would like to pay patrol officers $100,000 a year, it’s just not feasible to do,” said Zgonc, the deputy chief.

“Everyone in this area competes for the same people,” Zgonc said, referring to departments in communities such as Johns Creek and Alpharetta. “A department can’t afford to fall behind” on salaries, he said.

Frank Rotundo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, advised Sandy Springs officials on forming a police force after the 2005 incorporation of the city. He said the department started with above-market salaries because, as a department starting from scratch, it had to lure experienced command officers from other forces.

Rotundo and Zgonc said the State Patrol pay increase isn’t attracting many officers away from city departments. Sandy Springs lost only one officer, who previously had served as a state trooper, to the State Patrol. And the city force is currently only three full-time positions short. The big influence was whetting an appetite for raises among other forces’ officers and making area cities reevaluate their own pay scales in response.

Zgonc said the department’s biggest concern is recent losses of officers who “have left law enforcement altogether,” especially to private corporations. “We lost people to hospital groups. We lost people to communications companies,” he said.

“Law enforcement’s never been the highest-paid profession. So when private industry comes calling,” it can be attractive, he said. “They’re not having to answer the 911 call in the middle of the night on a Saturday night.”

Rotundo said a less-discussed hiring and retention factor is benefits. In 2009, the state moved away from defined pensions to a less predictable savings system, he said.

“All of this adds to a pool of applicants that gets thinner and thinner,” he said.

So far, the Sandy Springs department doesn’t have some of the morale-related hiring challenges facing departments elsewhere, Rotundo said. He noted the current era of “turbulence” and protests targeting police for misconduct that, he acknowledged, has sometimes proven to be true.

“What we tell [police officer candidates] is how fortunate we are to be in Sandy Springs because have great community support,” said Zgonc.

Rotundo said the Sandy Springs Police Department “has a great reputation… Their equipment is outstanding. Their leadership is outstanding.”

Rotundo said that Sandy Springs, like all departments, faces a basic choice in maintaining a force: raise pay or lower hiring standards. The latter choice can mean hiring “misfits … slugs, not real police officers,” he said.

“You get what you pay for,” he said.

The lowest, highest and median pay for each of the Sandy Springs Police Department three ranks of patrol-level officers.

Police Officer 1 (12 officers)

Lowest: $43,160

Highest: $47,640.90

Median: $44,239

Police Officer 2 (20 officers)

Lowest: $47,736

Highest: $50,157.89

Median: $48,929

Police Officer 3 (54 officers)

Lowest: $52,665.79

Highest: $69,885.89

Median: $55,747

Source: Sandy Springs Police Department payroll records

John Ruch

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