Wednesday, April 11, 2007 | Throughout the day on Tuesday, in five separate meetings, the city’s police officers turned out in force to vote on a much-anticipated contract proposal. The heart of the deal is a 9 percent basic pay raise for most officers and a radical reformation of how the city pays for police officers’ health and other benefits.

According to figures put out Tuesday by the Police Officers Association, a high-ranking officer with two or more dependents could receive an increase in take-home pay of as much as $9,173, or 13.4 percent. A new recruit who declines the city’s new health insurance program would actually earn $1,235, or 2.67 percent, less than under the previous contract.

The Badge Offered Some Bucks

  • The Issue: San Diego Police officers were asked to vote Tuesday on a proposed tentative agreement with the city of San Diego. The agreement included a 9-percent raise for most officers and a reworking of police benefits.
  • What It Means: The police department has reached an impasse with the city for the last two years over contract negotiations. This agreement, should it pass, would mark a major milestone for both parties.
  • The Bigger Picture: According to a recent study, the San Diego Police Department pays its officers less than most other law enforcement agencies in the county. More people left the police department in Fiscal Year 2006 than in the previous five years combined.

The results of the vote on the proposal were expected to emerge late Tuesday night. Should the union members approve the contract, its effects will vary from individual to individual, depending on an officer’s rank and family status.

The proposed contract comes at a time when the police department is facing what San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has called a crisis in officer attrition. In a one-month period this year, 25 officers left the SDPD. More officers left the force in 2006 than in the previous five years combined.

The city’s police have not received a pay raise in almost three years and have faced an impasse in negotiations with the city for the last two years. Officers have also seen their take-home pay cut significantly in the last two years as a result of increased medical and pension contributions.

Meanwhile, Sanders, a former police chief, is proposing to cut more than 600 jobs from other areas of the city to close a budget gap that was estimated to be $87.4 million before any new police raise was taken into account.

The wide-ranging effects of the proposal were evident among the police officers who congregated outside the POA headquarters throughout the day Tuesday.

“I’m not impressed at all,” said Bill Carter, an SDPD investigator who voted against the deal. “All it is is a shell game. They’re just moving money from one place to another.”

In contrast, Lt. Andrew Mills of the western division said he voted for the tentative agreement. “I think it’s a fair deal considering the state of the city,” he said.

The 9 percent raise would be split into three parts. All sworn officers would receive a 6-percent raise on July 1, followed by a 2-percent raise at the end of the year. Roughly 85 percent of the officers would receive an additional 1-percent educational incentive on July 1.

The officer compensation issue has largely been measured in take-home pay, the money officers receive after deductions have been made for taxes and benefit contributions.

The graph represents proposed take-home pay for mid-ranking officers under the pending contract and includes a 9-percent pay raise.

The tentative contract would result in higher take-home pay for almost every sworn officer in the SDPD. The only exception would be officers who choose not to participate in the city’s new health care plan. Officers of almost every rank who have dependents will see their take-home pay increase by more than 10 percent, according to the union’s figures.

Union directors and city officials refused to comment on the new contract Tuesday due to an ongoing confidentiality agreement.

Apart from the proposed salary raises, the other main element of the contract is a significant redistribution of health care funds.

Currently, all SDPD officers under the rank of lieutenant receive their health care benefits under a so-called cafeteria plan. Each officer, regardless of rank or family status, receives $5,575 a year to allocate toward health care and other benefits. Whatever their benefits cost above that, they pay the balance. If an officer’s benefits cost less than this amount, they can receive the balance either as additional wages or as payments into a 401(k) savings account or into other benefits programs.

Under the new system, officers will receive payments for benefits that are commensurate with their rank and family situation. Hence, officers with one or more dependent will receive a larger contribution toward their benefits than single officers.

At the high end of the scale, lieutenants with more than one dependent could receive as much as $10,690 toward their benefits. On the low end, a recruit who rejects the city’s health plan will receive a waiver payment of $1,000.

Capt. Bob Kanaski, head of human resources at the police department, said he hopes the proposed changes will make it easier to find new recruits. He said the pay raises and the changed benefits system will encourage experienced officers to consider San Diego as a destination for transfer. It may even bring some of the hundreds of officers who have left back to the SDPD, he said.

“I think, when you look at the 9 percent we’re getting, it puts us up towards what other departments are getting. It doesn’t necessarily put us up at the top, which I thought most of were hoping would happen, but I think it will as time goes on,” Kanaski said.

A report by private consultants released late last year confirmed a long-held belief around City Hall: that San Diego pays its officers well below the going rate. San Diego Police Department recruits ranked at the very bottom for take-home pay in the report, and higher ranking officers did not fare much better.

Officials have blamed San Diego’s pay, as well as a national recruiting problem brought about by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the city’s recruitment and retention problems.

Police officers said the new contract seems to be aimed at retaining experienced personnel. The increase in benefits for families should strike right at the heart of the attrition problem, said Capt. Sarah Creighton of SDPD’s western division.

“I think it’s trying to tip the scales for those officers that really couldn’t afford the medical coverage and were thinking of leaving,” Creighton said.

However, Creighton, who is single and has served with the department for more than 20 years, said many veteran officers have seen their kids grow up and leave home. The new deal doesn’t favor those officers, she said.

One thing all the officers agreed with was that the new tentative contract should be considered the first in a long line of reforms aimed at bringing the police department’s pay in line with other departments.

“Look, when you negotiate a new contract, 15 percent pay raises are unheard of,” said Capt. Chris Ball of SDPD’s central division. “Of course there are critics, but in total, it’s a damn good deal.”

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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