Roma seeing loss in police officers

ROMA — As the city council continues its review of complaints within the police department, officers have started leaving the city to work for other law enforcement agencies.

Within the last few weeks, one officer left the department to join the Roma school district’s police department, another submitted their two weeks’ notice to join the Starr County Sheriff’s Office and two more are likely to leave soon, according to Roma Police Chief Jose H. Garcia. Additionally, another officer is currently being vetted to possibly join a federal agency.

The department currently has 25 officers including Garcia and the officer who already submitted their two weeks notice, the chief said.

So far, their ability to patrol the city hasn’t been affected, Garcia said, but if they do lose the officers they’re expected to, they will have to downsize from four officers on patrol at a time to three plus a supervisor.

Mayor Roberto A. Salinas brought the issue to the council’s attention during a city workshop held Tuesday evening, citing the department’s low salaries for the loss in personnel.

“It’s my understanding that we’re losing police officers due to low pay,” Salinas told the council. “Apparently the Roma ISD Police Department is paying more as a starting salary, so is the sheriff’s department, so is the Rio Grande City Police Department.”

The starting annual salary at the department is $27,000, according to the chief who added that the starting salaries at the school district, Rio Grande City PD and the county range from $35,000 to $37,000.

“We have known for many years that the police department is underpaid but because of budget constraints, we haven’t been able to address it properly,” Salinas said during the workshop.

However, Salinas framed the ability to divert more funds to the police department as being dependent on whether or not the council members choose to call a special election in May.

The election is needed after the council voted late last year to place possible changes to the city charter amendments before voters.

The possible charter amendments include making it easier to hire and fire the city manager by requiring only a simple majority vote by the council instead of a super-majority vote.

Another possible change includes amending the charter to allow a former mayor or council member to hold a “compensated appointive office” or be employed by the city after one year of the expiration of the term for which they were elected or appointed.

During the workshop Tuesday, the attorney for the charter review committee informed the council members that they can choose to hold that election simultaneously with the November city council elections or call a special election in May, spending an additional $20,000 to hold it.

“Now if there is any wiggle room in the budget, we should set our priorities and maybe I would address that rather than a special election,” Salinas said, referring to the police officers’ pay.

However, some of the council members pushed back on the idea that the main cause of the problem was low pay.

City Councilmember Gilberto Ramirez noted that the city council is in the midst of interviewing all police officers as part of an “investigation” into Garcia, the police chief, and City Manager Crisanto Salinas.

The investigation was launched in August after the council received a letter authored by police officers that detailed various grievances with the department’s leadership.

The letter, dated July 15, listed several concerns over the conditions of the department that the officers allege Garcia and Salinas, failed to address.

Among the issues listed in their complaint is the lack of pay raises or a pay scale, the conditions of their police units, their schedules, and lack of “adequate” firearms training.

As part of the probe, the city council has met and interviewed the police officers, individually, over several city council meetings.

“I have to point out that during the interviews, we found several problems,” Ramirez said during Tuesday’s workshop, adding that so far they have only tackled the issue of shifts.

“That was not the only area and you all know which areas and for reasons of confidentiality I will not mention (them),” Ramirez said. “And if you remember correctly, I don’t think there was a single one that said that the primary issue was the financial.”

Ramirez added that he wasn’t suggesting the issue of pay wasn’t a factor but said they should continue tackling the other problems as well before placing the blame on low wages.

However, Garcia, the police chief, said the main issue was pay but added that other factors were less overtime work which led to the ability to spend more time with their families.

“I ask the officers, because I always ask what’s the reason, and they go from spending more time with the family, better pay, weekends off, holidays off,” Garcia said.

The officer that is leaving for the sheriff’s office, Garcia said, cited better opportunities as the reason behind their departure.

Filling those positions could prove just as difficult as keeping the officers they have. Garcia said they are trying to fill the current vacancy but so far no one has applied.

“There’s some that applied months ago so we’re asking for them to update their applications and then we’ll see what happens,” Garcia said.

During Tuesday’s workshop, Salinas, the mayor, suggested scheduling a budget workshop before the next regular city council meeting to address the issue.

Garcia however said this wasn’t a new problem and that the department goes through this “every now and then.”

“It’s just a matter of adjusting for a little while,” he said, “but we can still function and protect our community.”