In an effort to ease the search for a new head of the New Haven Police Department, the Board of Aldermen Finance Committee approved a measure last night that would increase the maximum allowable salary for the position.

City officials have been engaged in a national search since outgoing NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz announced in December he would resign following the appointment of a successor, most likely later this spring. But as the city of New Haven seeks to reorganize its police force with the assistance of the Police Executive Research Forum, aldermen are looking for ways to attract the top available candidates, some of whom would face the prospect of a cross-country relocation.

PERF is a Washington-based group of police experts brought to give recommendations to the NHPD in the aftermath of last March’s arrests of corruption charges in the NHPD’s Narcotics Unit. PERF will narrow the list of applicants and send the city a list of finalists in mid-March, Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said.

The new executive pay range will only include the job description of the chief of police and will run from $100,000 to $160,000. Previously, the maximum salary that could be offered without board approval was $115,000, with overall possible salary capping out at $127,000.

While all aldermen in attendance agreed with the argument presented by city administrators — that the city needs the new “market-competitive” pay scale to attract the best police executives — several aldermen expressed concern that setting such a high upper limit would encourage candidates to ask for higher salaries at the outset, thus hurting the city’s bargaining position and possibly costing taxpayers more money.

The measure eventually passed, 8-1.

Before passing the amendment, aldermen debated an additional amendment from Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez — which ultimately failed, 4-4 — that would have scaled back the upper limit to $150,000. Perez was the only alderman to ultimately vote against the final version of the proposed changes.

During the public hearing, Smuts told the committee the amendment is designed so that, when market conditions demand it, the city can have greater flexibility in setting the chief’s salary.

“We found that salaries for similar jobs in smaller departments are actually higher,” Smuts said at the hearing.

The chief of police in Hartford, which is roughly the same size as New Haven, earns $145,000, and in Springfield, Mass., which is slightly larger than the Elm City, the top police officer takes in $155,000 a year, according to data Smuts provided to the aldermen. Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, pays its chief $118,000.

Smuts noted PERF had actually recommended a higher range, but the city thought $160,000 should be sufficient.

Aldermen made clear at the committee hearing that, while the range would be used to advertise the position, the high end of the scale should not become the de facto expected salary — though in light of other cities’ salaries and in lieu of other benefits, it certainly could, some said.

Because the current city charter and ordinances prevent the city from offering additional incentives — housing assistance, pension benefits prior to the regular 10-year minimum or severance packages, some of which are offered by other cities to their chiefs — salary is the one primary bargaining tool officials can use with potential applicants.

Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, who voted for both the proposal and the additional amendment that failed, said his worries were not only fiscal.

“I have concerns that a lot of [these] barriers we have will limit our pool,” he said.

Ward 25 Alderwoman Ina Silverman ’80 EPH ’83, vice chair of the committee, said she supported the measure because she wanted to give the city all the tools it needed to cast as wide a net as possible.

Another potential concern mentioned by committee members had to do with the current length of the chief’s term. According to the city charter, the new chief can only be guaranteed to serve out Ortiz’s current term, which ends February 2010. But another state provision specifies that a chief of police cannot be dismissed without cause.

A chief coming from across the country would likely want assurance that the position would last longer than two years, Smuts said. He told the board the legal issues were not totally clear but that not rehiring the new chief at the end of the current term could be construed as an illegal dismissal.

But the inability to guarantee a contract longer than two years was one reason board President Carl Goldfield said he was adamantly opposed to the amendment that reduced the cap to $150,000.

“We’re looking for someone to come in and remake the department. We’re looking for someone extraordinary,” Goldfield said. “We may be asking someone to pick up to move themselves, their kids, their spouse … I believe they’ll negotiate as hard as possible. It doesn’t make sense to me to tie people’s hands over this range of money.”

But Perez said he did not think the lower cap would damage the city’s bargaining position because it was his impression that the city was not necessarily trying to hire someone at the top of the range.

“They should have a very convincing case for why we should pay at the top of the range,” Perez said, who added that he thought a higher salary range was important and that he only disagreed on the exact number.