Council Members Prefer to See Meet and Confer Work
“Why are we here?” asked San Angelo Coalition of Police (SACOP) President Sergeant Korby Kennedy following a City presentation in Meet and Confer on March 19. SACOP and city staff have been meeting for eight months now to negotiate a police pay raise that will bring them within 3 percent of similar benchmark cities, however the City’s updated pay proposal that Wednesday deviated from the intended purpose of the negotiations—to focus solely on police pay—and instead defined costs and capacity for pay raises across all City departments.
City staff advised that they felt a police pay proposal would be more successful when brought before City Council if that proposal included a percentage increase for every employee in every department, rather than focusing on the police department individually.
“Well, I think for you to achieve long-term success in this process, you’re going to need to be part of an overall strategy,” Chief Financial Officer Michael Dane said in response to Kennedy’s question about why he was in the meeting. “In the past we have not heard a strong sentiment from Council that they want to address only pay of the police department. I think to the extent that we can develop solutions that address pay and benefits issues across the organization, you have the best probability for success in both the short and the long term.”
Assumptions on the sentiment of Council were made throughout the meeting to push for an “organization-wide strategy”, as city staff asserted that Council has historically voted for raises across all departments, rather than on a department-by-department basis. This became a sticking point for discussion as the city side stated they didn’t know how to proceed without Council’s guidance and SACOP maintained that the objective of Meet and Confer is not to negotiate on behalf of the entire City.
“In 2007 the state legislature allowed civil service cities for the public safety sector to negotiate for pay, benefits and working conditions,” Kennedy explains. “Meet and Confer lets us tailor state law to meet our needs locally. The law is pretty ambiguous across the state and the conditions that occur in Dallas or San Antonio are not the same conditions that we may have here.”
In order to be able to address their own, specific needs, the police department opted for Meet and Confer, which allows the department to bargain things away that benefit the City in exchange for better pay, benefits, etc. For example, officers can no longer go to an arbitrator for less than a three-day suspension. In the past, it was possible to seek the services of an arbitrator for a one-day suspension, which would cost the City loads of money. This was bargained away at a previous Meet and Confer meeting in exchange for other benefits desirable to the police department. Meet and Confer also allows the PD to negotiate pay and raises, as is currently in progress.
In a telephone interview following the March 19 meeting, Mayor Dwain Morrison spoke on his expectations from Meet and Confer. “Since the police department asked for, several years ago, and was given the right to Meet and Confer, I want to see the system work,” he said. With regard to how the Council considers raises, Morrison said, “You’ve got city employees, then you’ve got civil service employees (fire), then you’ve got the police department employees, which is under Meet and Confer, so we’re really dealing with three systems here. Meet and Confer is police department only. It is exclusive to the policemen.”
Councilman Johnny Silvas agreed with Mayor Morrison on the exclusivity of Meet and Confer. When asked if he would prefer to see a pay proposal specific to the police department come out of the process, he responded, “Yes, yes I would because that’s exactly what the Meet and Confer is supposed to do. That’s the whole idea behind it. It’s a totally different group. Sure, they’re City employees, but it’s a contract that we’re trying to work out with them. If the City staff were in a union type of thing, we’d be doing the same thing, working out some sort of contract for them. Meet and Confer is just one segment of the City staff—the city police—and the rest of the staff is just everybody else. Two totally different things.”
The majority of Council shared this sentiment, including both Don Vardeman and Rodney Fleming as well, however all were also clear that employees as a whole are important to Council, and stressed that pay raises are important organization wide.
Regardless of what their expectations might be however, City staff had difficulty moving forward at the March 19 meeting, stating that they hadn’t had any guidance from Council as far as where pay raises lie on the list of City priorities.
“I would anticipate that addressing pay across the organization would be one of the priorities, but until they tell us, it’s just an assumption,” Dane said. “We’ve heard clear communication about water, clear communication about streets, clear communication about drainage issues, we actually have a resolution communicating a goal to reduce the property tax rate…” But no speak of personnel.
As discussion continued at the meeting, City staff contended that in order to move forward, they would need some guidance from Council outlining those priorities. In order to receive that guidance, meetings were to be held on a one-to-one basis between each council member and City Manager Daniel Valenzuela.
As per the rules of Meet and Confer, City staff cannot negotiate with the 174 members of the police department; those negotiations have to be made with SACOP. Likewise, members of SACOP are not permitted to negotiate with Council or staff outside the Meet and Confer committee on an item that is currently on the table.
Employees a Priority
In interviews conducted following the Meet and Confer meeting, council members resoundingly responded that employee pay is a priority for Council, both for police and for the rest of the City.
“I think that employees are important to the City,” Councilman Marty Self said. “If you don’t have good employees, you can’t get anything done, you can’t achieve goals. While I don’t put it above street maintenance and water, I think it’s up there with it. I think we have to have good employees or we’re not going to accomplish anything, and the way you get good employees is through pay.”
Self said that although he is for pay raises and benefits, he does not support Meet and Confer, and would prefer to get rid of it and instead “work together to pave a goal for the entire City, rather than just a department”.
Self’s preference to look at the City as whole when it comes to pay raises is not an isolated thought. Silvas, Vardeman and Mayor Morrison also expressed the importance of knowing what funds are available to apply raises citywide, but all agreed that the police department should be seen as a different entity, if only because of Meet and Confer.
Vardeman said that he views both police and fire differently due to the nature of their jobs, and for that reason places a special emphasis on addressing the pay needs of those organizations. “It’s more difficult to maintain those and to get them to come in and stay, and some of those sort of things,” he said, adding that in his opinion, certain jobs take precedence over others and that he would be in favor of paying people in those positions a bit more than the rest.
Ideally, however, Vardeman would see the City be able to apply the same raises across the organization. “If we’re going to give the police department 5 percent, I want to do my best to give the rest of the city employees 5 percent also,” he said. “I think more or less Meet and Confer sometimes sets the tone for the rest of the City.”
Conversely, Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer says she bases her vote on the preparation of department heads and how a pay raise will affect the rest of the City.
“I try to look at the overall picture, the big picture,” she said. “It’s not just one department. I don’t put any department over the other, because to me, they’re all important, they’re all very important. Yes, fire and police put their lives on the line, and yes, it has happened that those who work on the sewer lines and the water lines—we’ve lost employees there as well. They’re all very important to me.”
Farmer says she has some specific issues with the way the police department goes about seeking raises, namely that she feels they would take the money all at once without consideration of other departments; that they use a different set of benchmark cities; and that she would prefer to institute a form of hazard pay that only officers regularly in the line of fire would be eligible for.
“The police department—they want it all at once,” she said. “I would love to bring them up to 90 percent all at once, but I don’t have the money. In the meantime, do you tell other employees, ‘ok, you don’t get a raise, we’re going to give it all to the police’. Do you tell the firemen that, do you tell the guys that work in the ditches, do you tell the secretaries that work at the desks? They all have very key, important jobs. You have to be fair and spread it across the board.”
SACOP’s most recent proposal is a three-year plan in which the department would incrementally be brought up to 100 percent of the average of their benchmarks, starting with 85 percent in year one, 92.5 percent in year two and 100 percent in year three.
Farmer says she has documentation of all the raises provided over the past several years, and that the police department has never been excluded from their considerations. They, like every other City department, were behind their benchmarks, she says, and Council has been progressively trying to bring them up to 90 percent of those averages. The problem with the PD, she continued, is that they aren’t using the same cities as a base for comparison as the rest of the departments.
“I watch very closely our benchmark cities and what they’re offering and what they’re doing, and if you look at the police department’s benchmark cities, they’re not the same as the benchmark cities that we look at,” she said.
“I can’t use cities like Midland. They’re tax base is much greater and much larger than ours, much larger,” she continued. “And the average salary over in that area is much greater than it is here, so I throw out Midland. But the police department likes to use it because their salaries are so much more. Well, that’s great. I’d love to compare, say, my salary to somebody in New York City, but it’s not an apple-to-apple comparison…the police department—the guys on the committee—I don’t think they know that their benchmark—what they’re saying is a benchmark—is not an actual and true benchmark.”
According to Farmer, the rest of the City uses only five benchmark cities, two of which—Abilene and Midland—are cast out because they are not comparable to San Angelo. In actuality, the City uses 13 benchmark cities, and those 13 cities were decided in a study that City Council approved in 2008.
City of San Angelo Human Resources Director Lisa Marley said, “There’s 13 cities that City Council approved for using as benchmarks, and to my knowledge the police department uses the same ones. Since the study we’ve always used those 13. We might have used others before the study, but I don’t know what those are. And we don’t ever throw out Abilene, we don’t ever throw out Midland. We know that Midland will skew our numbers, because of what they’ve gone through with the oil field, but we don’t throw them out.”
Kennedy said that when SACOP began the Meet and Confer process, one of their first tasks was determining which cities to use as benchmarks. Rather than seek those out on their own, SACOP elected to use those approved by Council in the previous study. These were also approved by the City prior to the beginning of the negotiation process.
But although she can’t agree with providing the police department a higher pay raise than other departments, Farmer does concede that the hazards of the job may be worth more money, if labeled properly.
“I will admit that their job is more dangerous—a policeman, a fireman,” she said. “They’re rushing into a danger, a known danger. So I suggested that we could come up with something in possibly a differential rate. That police and fire can be paid including a differential rate because of the type job. Call it hazard pay, call it differential pay—that we could set a scale for that. That not all policemen—the ones that work in records, some of them are police employees, some of them are patrolmen—but not all of the police department qualifies for differential pay or hazard pay. The person who works...records and forensics, those folks aren’t necessarily rushing into the danger.”
Farmer has yet to introduce her idea to other council members, however hopes to get it into the budget workshops this year. Under her idea, all officers would become eligible for hazard pay upon leaving the academy and going to patrol, but should an officer promote or be selected for a position where he is no longer on patrol, he wouldn’t be eligible for any increases in hazard pay. “You never lose what you’ve got,” she explained, “you just wouldn’t be eligible for any more.”
One of the current problems with the police pay scales is that the salary difference from a top-ranking sergeant to the first step of lieutenant is almost negligible. Should one’s hazard pay no longer be eligible for increases, the incentive to promote could become even smaller.
Defining who would receive hazard pay could cause a problem as well, as even the desk officer is capable of putting on a uniform and being called to service. Detectives, CSI and other personnel would also be excluded, she said.
“Well, a detective comes in—I’m going to have to hear more about what they do. A detective comes in after the crime’s been committed, not while it’s going on, whereas your patrolmen and those frontline officers—there’s a difference between frontline and secondary,” she said. “Secondary goes in and investigates after the crime has been committed.
“My son was a policeman. I do know the fear that I had when he was a patrolman and starting out,” Farmer continued. “But after he started making ranks and promotions and he sat in the office and he worked on budgets he wasn’t in the line of fire and I felt a whole lot better about him not being in the line of fire. For me, he wouldn’t qualify for that hazard pay”
Since the last Meet and Confer meeting, there have been two armed robberies and an officer-involved shooting at Walmart. The Tom Green County Sheriff’s Office is also currently investigating a murder-suicide. In these instances, all available officers respond, including those behind a desk.
“Obviously this last week alone demonstrates that there are different hazards; we’re seeing them more and more on a regular basis,” Police Chief Tim Vasquez said. “Four officer-involved shootings in the last four years should be alarming. But I do think that I would not support limiting the hazard pay to just a portion of the organization.
“When we have a critical incident in our community, everyone that is available responds—detectives, administration—so that’s something that everybody does. There are detectives that are issuing and running search warrants every day, which are also high-risk situations. When we had the incident last Monday (Walmart), everybody that responded that was able to get in a car and go, did. We had traffic officers there, we had detectives there, we had command staff there.”
But regardless of who’s eligible, Farmer says hazard pay allows her to justify giving the police a raise. Otherwise, she said, she can’t look other City employees in the face and say that their jobs are not as important as police officer’s, especially since a lot of the police aren’t out on the front lines. “That’s the reason I believe in hazard pay,” she said. “If we have a grade that has a hazard pay in there, I can easily do that and justify the police getting more money.”
Whether it’s called hazard pay or the popcorn fee, the police department just wants its officers to be paid the average, Kennedy says. He looks at other cities where officers do the same job, yet are paid 20 percent more and asks, “‘Is his life worth 20 percent more than mine?’”
“I would like to give everybody a huge raise, but when I look at policemen and firemen, they’re different,” Fleming said. “These guys can die, whereas the guy working out on the street the odds are very, very low. Every car they approach they can be killed.”
“I will value these guys over myself,” he continued. “They are just more valuable to me, and that is my opinion. Do the benchmark cities give all their staff all the same raise every year? I find that hard to believe.”
The Meet and Confer teams have been working at coming up with an agreeable proposal for eight months now. Councilman Fleming has been present at several meetings, Don Vardeman has attended a few, and Charlotte Farmer was present at one. No other council members have gone to the meetings, preferring to hear the proposal when it reaches the Council chambers rather than to become mired the negotiations.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think everyone knows everything we do within the organization,” he continued. “I don’t know where that communication disconnect is at. I think that right now there is not enough information being relayed to them in regards to what’s going on in Meet and Confer and what the officers are bringing to the table, which I think has hindered the process. I would think they would be able to make a more educated vote if they knew that this is what the police have brought to the table and this is what the city side has brought to the table.”
The next Meet and Confer meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. in City Hall. At last meeting, the City has said they needed to discuss priorities with Council. This meeting, the agenda lists continued discussion of pay scenarios.
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