Saying they feel blistered by recent pay negotiations, city police officers are calling on the Coeur d’Alene City Council to craft a friendlier way to talk about wages and benefits.
The Coeur d’Alene Police Officers Association also wants the council to drop attempts to bring its members’ benefits in line with the private sector.
The City Council likely will vote on a fact-finding commission’s recommendations for police officer compensation tonight. But even if Lake City police officers get what they want - adoption of the commission’s recommendation for a 2.5 percent wage increase, better disability insurance and a two-year contract - they say the way the two sides discuss compensation only breeds bad feelings.
“I would hope the city would realize the dissent the whole process has caused between the association and the city,” said Mike Calderwood, president of the association. “Both sides need to sit down and calmly agree on a way to make this not such an unpleasant process.”
The dispute started when the city proposed cutting vacation, sick leave and health insurance benefits when negotiations opened last summer, Calderwood said. The city argued it was time to bring city employees, including the approximately 50 members of the police officers association, in line with the private sector.
The city dropped its attempt to change benefits after negotiations failed and the issue went to an independent fact-finding commission. But anger over the attempt to cut benefits still lingers and the police officers believe the issue will be back.
The move sends the message, “You aren’t worth as much as you were two years ago,” Calderwood said. The association gleaned data from state reports showing Coeur d’Alene has one of the highest crime rates in Idaho but also one of the best crime-solving rates.
Simultaneously, a police association survey shows Coeur d’Alene officers third from the bottom among nine cities including Moscow, Meridian and Idaho Falls. While the officers asked for a 6 percent increase, the most it appears they will get is 2.5 percent.
“So we are fighting more crime and solving more crime and not getting paid as much,” Calderwood said. “It’s a real slap in the face.”
As a consequence, the city stands to lose its experienced officers to other departments, and that potentially will harm public safety, he said.
But the police are as burned by attempts to bring their compensation in line with the private sector as any issue.
They lay their lives on the line every day for the public, unlike any other profession, they say.
“How can you compare us to something that doesn’t exist?” Calderwood asked.
Finally, the police officers are concerned that the city doesn’t regard the fact-finder’s report as binding. That means that all of the time and money spent on negotiating could have been for naught, Calderwood explained.
Former State Sen. Mary Lou Reed, a member of fact-finding group, generally agreed with the police officers. But the majority of the fact-finding commission took issue with the police officers’ salary survey.
Still, John House, chairman of the commission, agrees that the city needs to rewrite its rules for negotiating.
“I think the process, as it exists, is a painful one for both sides,” House said. “There’s not a compelling reason in the ordinance, as it’s currently written, for either side to make quantum leaps toward neutral ground or problem solving.”
House recommends binding arbitration so that if there’s an impasse, both sides have more incentive to compromise. House also believes having professional mediators involved, instead of city staff and police officers, will make it easier on everyone.
“These are good, honest, hard-working people,” House said of both sides. But “the process evolves into a personal situation instead of a professional situation and you get a lot of bruised feelings and hurt egos that people will carry on their sleeves for years,” House said.
Part of the friction comes from a report issued by Concerned Businesses of North Idaho last year urging the city to bring employee benefits in line with the private sector. Employees say they are certain the City Council is bowing to that pressure.
But Mayor Al Hassell says that while the Concerned Businesses report focused attention on the issue, the escalating cost of benefits has been a concern for years. Most of the city’s operating budget is consumed by wages and benefits.
Balancing those costs against a limited budget mandates looking for places to save money. And referring to the changes in benefits as cuts is a little misleading, he said.
“It’s like cutting the deficit,” Hassell said. “You are really cutting the rate of increase.”
Much of the dissention, Hassell said, stems from the fact that for the first time, city officials are making a push to change benefits.
“Change is different,” he said. “People don’t like change.”
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