Police raises? City: Forget it

December 3rd, 2009 by

TAMPA - The city’s police officers won’t be getting pay raises this fiscal year after all.

Breaking a nine-month impasse, the Tampa City Council on Wednesday voted 5-1 to suspend step plan increases for the roughly 500 police officers who are eligible. The council also voted to accept Mayor Pam Iorio’s plan to force 65 officers who have received raises since the beginning of the fiscal year to pay back the money, at $5 per paycheck.

That decision provoked outrage from police union officials who attended the meeting.

“If they do that, I can assure you we will file an unfair labor practice,” Greg Stout, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, said after the meeting. “I don’t care if it’s a dollar a month. Our hardworking police officers deserve that money.”

Councilman Joseph Caetano cast the lone vote against the measures. Councilwoman Mary Mulhern was dealing with a family illness and absent from the hearing.

Several council members said they sympathized with officers and other city workers but the city is facing budget challenges and can’t afford pay raises.

“We are in tough times,” Councilman John Dingfelder said. “Let’s tough it out together.”

The decision followed hours of testimony from city officials, representatives of the police union and several officers. The two had been at an impasse since July, when Iorio requested that a special magistrate settle the contract dispute, which was mostly over pay.

Off-duty police officers and their family members – some wearing T-shirts that read, “In Memory of Cpl. Mike Roberts,” who was killed in the line of duty in August – packed the council chambers for the public hearing. City officials had to ask some officers to leave because the room was too crowded.

Magistrate John McCollister recently sided with the city on the issue of step increases – awarded to officers as they rise through the ranks – recommending that the increases be frozen this fiscal year but reinstated next year barring “an unanticipated catastrophe.”

The union already had agreed to forgo cost-of-living increases.

Diane Morton, an attorney for the police union, argued that the step plan was not just about raises. She said it is a vital recruitment tool that helps the department attract the best and brightest officers.

For officers who were promised step increases this year, freezing the plan until next fiscal year would be a “slap in the face,” Morton said.

“To freeze the plan now would mean that they worked last year for nothing,” she said.

Morton said law enforcement officers are different from other municipal employees because of the dangerous nature of the job.

“There are soldiers, and there are civilians,” she said. “These are your soldiers.”

Iorio imposed a wage freeze and provided no funding for city employee raises in the fiscal 2010 budget to fill a $51 million shortfall. She said raises and other concessions for the police department alone would cost the city’s taxpayers more than $4.8 million.

If that happened, Iorio warned, it would mean widespread layoffs and service cuts.

City officials said Tampa’s financial situation has not improved and they cannot afford to give raises or other financial concessions to police, fire or general employees.

“There is zero money in this year’s budget for raises,” said Kimberly Crum, director of the city’s human resources department. “Clearly we are in a difficult budget situation.”

She said neither Iorio nor her department heads will get raises in 2010 and the city plans to reinstate the step program in the next fiscal year.

“The step program is not going away,” Crum said, adding that increases would not be guaranteed, as recommended by the magistrate, but would have to be negotiated.

The two sides presented dueling figures on the estimated costs of the step plan increases.

The union said increases for officers who were eligible would cost the city $772,000 a year, roughly 1 percent of the department’s annual budget. City officials estimated the cost at more than $1.7 million, including pension contributions and other expenses.

Oscar Cardoso, an accountant hired by the police union to conduct an analysis of the city’s fiscal 2010 budget, said the city’s figures were inflated. He said the city could afford to pay its officers step increases by tapping into its $82 million reserve fund.

“There’s plenty of money in the city’s reserves to pay for the increases,” Cardoso said.

Before the public hearing, the Iorio administration did concede to a request from the union for additional sick leave, from 45.7 to 80 hours a year. The special magistrate had sided with the police union on that contested item in his nonbinding ruling.

Police officers have been without a contract since Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

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