At Costa Mesa's Police Department, a part-time reserve officer can now earn more per hour than a starting full-time officer.
After a unanimous City Council vote Tuesday, a starting reserve will earn $38 an hour, up from $33. The beginning pay for a full-time officer is just under $37 an hour.
Costa Mesa reserve officers carry a badge and gun and function almost the same as full-time officers, except that they work part time and receive no benefits.
Council members said the pay raise will help recruit new blood and fill gaps at an understaffed department. But a day after the decision, the pay disparity rankled the Costa Mesa Police Assn., which represents full-time officers.
"In some ways it's kind of a slap in the face because it's saying we basically devalue your life's work, saying somebody else part time can do it just as well," said Rob Dimel, the association's president and an officer in the department.
Dimel questioned why the council decided to raise part-time pay when the agency has 26 full-time vacancies it is trying to fill.
"Reserves are great, but here's the drawback to reserves – they're part-time officers," Dimel said. Part-time officers may not be able attend court cases or commit themselves to long overnight shifts if they're retired or working another job, he said.
On Tuesday night, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger praised the reserve program, which currently employs about five people, as a "force enhancer."
"Reserves are kind of like your farm team," he said.
Mensinger said he has suggested the department use reserves as an economical way to fill niche positions like the school resource officers at the city's two high schools. Full-time officers have been working overtime to staff the schools. The pay increase may help recruit more reserves, he said.
Because of similar qualification requirements and the fact that the city is recruiting for full-time jobs at the same time, few people are applying for reserve positions, city human-resources analyst Kasama Lee told the City Council.
According to Lee, the city has received 2,100 applications this year to become a police officer. Lee said many applied both for full-time and part-time positions, but only 60 applied only for part time.
"So we're kind of competing against ourselves right now," she said.
Mensinger originally floated the idea of boosting reserve officers' pay to mirror the 8% increase that full-timers received during the past two years. His proposal would have boosted their hourly wage to $35.64.
"If we're not hiring enough reserves," Mensinger said. "If we're not getting reserves, we need to figure out why."
But on Tuesday, Councilman Gary Monahan suggested increasing the pay to $38 an hour, a 15 percent raise.
"I personally don't think that the 4% or 8% is enough," he said.
Immediately after the vote, Costa Mesa police Capt. Rob Sharpnack questioned the decision.
"We have a conflict with that," he said. "Thirty-eight dollars will be above the bottom-step officer."
Mayor Jim Righeimer replied that full-time officers still will make more overall.
"There's no benefits [for reserves]," he said. "They're only working what, 10 hours, 12 hours a week? The goal is to get some of those officers to move into full-time officers, try them out."
A city staff report estimated the pay bump would cost $36,000 per year at most, an amount the Police Department's budget could absorb.