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Aside from oversight, new police union contract would have financial impact

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 25, 2021

Debate over a long-overdue police union contract in Spokane has centered on independent oversight of officer conduct, but it would also have a tangible impact on the city budget and taxpayers.

A tentative five-year agreement between the Spokane Police Guild and the city, scheduled for a vote by the Spokane City Council on Monday, would increase officer compensation and benefits by a total of $9.5 million over the life of the contract.

City Council members are convinced the raises are both deserved and expected, with money squirreled away in reserves in anticipation of this eventual payday.

“We always want to make sure that we’re being very careful with everyone’s tax dollar, and I believe in this package we absolutely are,” said Councilwoman Candace Mumm.

Including both pay and benefits, the average annual increase would be 3.5% over the life of the five-year deal.

Four of those five years are retroactive because the new agreement would be the first since the previous iteration expired at the end of 2016. In terms of base pay, officers would receive an increase of 2.5% in 2017, 3% annually from 2018 to 2020, and then 2.5% in the final year of the deal.

One small benefit to not having a new contract for four years is that nearly all the raises are retroactive, Mumm noted. That means that officer raises aren’t based on projections of the future, but on the actual pay rates of officers in comparable cities for those years.

“We have historical data from other communities,” Mumm said. “This is not a look forward forecasting what the economic environment is.”

In a pre-pandemic Spokane, business was booming.

“This matched what was going on in the economy at the time,” Mumm said.

Meanwhile, initial fears that the pandemic would gut city revenues have not come to fruition, giving city leaders some comfort in planning ahead.

Where Spokane stands

A spokesperson for the police department declined to provide The Spokesman-Review with a list of comparable cities used to determine fair pay, citing attorney-client privilege and noting that the list had not been shared with the Guild during negotiations.

The Washington State Patrol included Spokane in a compensation analysis released in 2020. Compared to the seven agencies included in the report, Spokane police officers are often paid less than their counterparts in Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, the Washington State Patrol, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the King County Sheriff’s Office.

A starting officer in Spokane earns a base pay of $55,270, by far the lowest of the group.

As officers gain experience, they typically receive tiered pay increases. The base salary for a Spokane officer with one year of experience is $75,419, for example, compared to $86,819 for one with 25 years on the force.

Although the gap varies, a Spokane officer receives below-average pay at every increment of experience, the Washington State Patrol analysis found.

Still, the raises in the tentative agreement are better than what the Guild won in its last contract, which saw officers receive a base pay increase of 2% each year from 2012 to 2015. They did not receive a raise in 2016 but did receive an increase in “deferred compensation.” Overall, the city estimated at the time that the deal increased pay and benefits by 2.8% per year.

Kris Honaker, president of the Spokane Police Guild, addressed the length of time the union’s members have gone without a raise during a news conference announcing the tentative agreement earlier this month.

“Obviously our members did not benefit the way a lot of people did when the economy was doing very well here a couple years ago,” Honaker said.

And while the pay raises are retroactive, the contract can’t cover the earnings officers might have gotten by investing that money while the economy was flourishing.

“We understand that. There were other things in play here,” Honaker said.

Pay matters when competition is tight.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review that there are a limited number of qualified applicants and many departments are hiring. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, for example, offers a $7,500 signing bonus that the Spokane Police Department does not.

“We are really trying to fish from the same pool,” Meidl said.

How the raises will be paid for

Mumm said the city has been funneling money into reserves in preparation for the eventual signing of a contract that would retroactively increase officer pay. The 2021 budget already accounts for the raise due this year, she added.

The city has an incentive to settle the agreement because arbitration could be costly, Mumm noted. Not only would the process take time, but it could be risky, as an arbitrator could award the Guild a higher pay raise than what was negotiated.

“It’s an unknown,” Mumm said.

Spending on police is a significant portion of the city’s annual budget, which totaled about $1 billion in 2021. The portion of the city’s $208.5 million general fund spent on the police department is $64.2 million

That figure does not include the $5.4 million public safety personnel fund, the result of the public safety levy approved by voters in 2019 to hire additional police officers and retain firefighters who were previously grant-funded.

If the city is spending too much on public safety, voters have yet to signal that to elected officials. The public safety levy passed in 2019 with more than 60% of the vote.

That community support is an important recruiting tool, Meidl said. When interviewing potential candidates, he said, “I remind them that we have a city that said, ‘We’re willing to pay more taxes to pay more of you.’”

“Community members do not take more money out of their wallet to pay for things they don’t like,” Meidl said.

Overtime

While the base pay negotiated in the contract is not a concern for City Council members, they continue to press for answers on the substantial overtime budgets of the police and fire departments.

The city’s 2021 budget allocates up to $150,000 for an independent study of the overtime practices of both departments.

The department spent $3.3 million on overtime pay for uniformed officers in 2019 and had spent $3.2 million in 2020 through November .

Typically, some of that burden is offset because organizers of events like Bloomsday and Hoopfest pay a portion of the costs related to officer overtime. In 2020, the department saw substantial costs related to protests.

Whether it’s staffing a parade or protest, Meidl said, staffing decisions often come down to a balance between limiting cost and assuring safety.

“I’m excited to see the (overtime) report; I’m always willing to look at areas where we could be more efficient,” Meidl said.

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