Recruit and retain first responders

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COLUMBIA - A new initiative is designed to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters in Columbia by providing housing assistance.

It was proposed by City Council Member Matt Pitzer.

"We have had trouble filling the positions we do have money for," Pitzer said. "Once we may have had dozens of qualified candidates for a single slot. Today it is increasingly difficult to attract applicants to these jobs. We need to do more and we need to do better."

The city has a plan to help with recruitment.

"We will provide up to $500 a month of rental assistance for new hires for their first six months on the job," Pitzer said.

But, the recipient's rented home has to be in the Columbia city limits.

Pitzer said, "This will help ease the transition to a new job and a new city."

He hopes the initiative will reduce the stress of securing housing while people are adjusting and hopes this gives Columbia a competitive advantage for new hires.

The Columbia Police Association's executive director, Dale Roberts, said the rental housing allowance should help attract new officers.

"That's obviously an important component of getting up to staffing," he said.

Pitzer said the economic realities have made it hard to get and keep a robust force.

"Slowing revenue growth means that the size of our police and fire departments has not kept pace with the needs of a growing and vibrant city," Pitzer said.

The city also has a plan for retaining police officers.

Those who have been with the police department for two years are eligible for help with a down payment on house in Columbia's city limits, as long as they agree to live there for either five or 10 years.

"This would be up to $5,000 for a 5-year commitment and $10,000 for a 10-year commitment," Pitzer said.

There is an additional $5,000 offered for homes purchased in one of Columbia's strategic plan neighborhoods.

"That's $15,000 max and we'll do it in $1,000 increments." Pitzer said. "You make a commitment to us and we'll make a commitment to you."

The new initiative will fund up to 30 new hires and 30 home buyers. The $500,000 would come from the city council's savings portion of savings from Fiscal Year 17 Incentive Based Budgeting. The city is not sure how it will fund this project in the years to come. 

Roberts said many police officers live outside of Columbia and believes the incentive plan will help change that.

There has been a lot of talk about community policing initiatives from the city.

"With the city council recently embracing the philosophy of community-oriented policing, this is an ideal time to introduce incentives to encourage our young public safety officers to put down their roots here," Pitzer said.

Over the past two fiscal years, 20 percent of the police and fire departments staff has either resigned or retired.

"Ninety-five members of the police department have left in the past five years." Pitzer said. "That's more than half of the forces authorized strength in that time."