POCATELLO — The city reached tentative salary agreements with the unions representing Pocatello police and firefighters on Wednesday, signaling an end to a contentious negotiation period that has lasted several months.
The tense bargaining process between the city and the Pocatello police union ended during a hearing Wednesday morning at City Hall with the police union accepting the city’s offer of a 5 percent annual pay increase for all Pocatello police officers and a promotion bonus for those at the lower compensation level for their rank.
The Pocatello firefighters union accepted an offer from the city on Wednesday afternoon that will give each member of the Pocatello Fire Department a 6 percent annual pay hike without any promotion bonuses.
“We’re glad to be finished,” said Andy Moldenhauer, the Pocatello firefighters union president. “We are glad to have avoided fact-finding because that is not a process that is good for either side. My guys are pleased to get an increase, but without this raise we (were) still 22 percent behind market average. Yes, 6 percent is a good step in the right direction but we need to work to get this closer to the market average in the future.”
The pay raises are to be included in the city’s upcoming fiscal 2020 budget and are expected to get final approval from the City Council in August.
City spokesman Logan McDougall said the city is glad to have reached salary agreements with the firefighters and police unions.
“The city is pleased to have signed tentative agreements with the members of the police and fire unions’ negotiating teams and we appreciate the efforts put in by all the negotiating teams,” McDougall said, adding that the city was happy to see the community support for both unions.
The salary negotiations between the city and police union got much uglier than the talks between the city and firefighters union.
But Wednesday’s meeting between the city and police union negotiation teams was surprisingly much less contentious.
Not physically present during that meeting was Boise attorney Scott Marotz, one of the city’s lead negotiators for its talks with the police and firefighters unions.
“Due to the meeting being convened on short notice and other commitments with his firm in Boise, Mr. Marotz was unable to attend the meeting in person,” McDougall said. “However, he was able to participate in the proceedings via phone.”
Last week, Marotz caused tensions to overflow at a salary negotiation hearing with the police union when he told Pocatello police union Vice President Akilah Lacey that Lacey made a personal decision to work for the Pocatello Police Department knowing the pay is lower than what’s offered by other Idaho police departments.
Marotz’s statement was a response to a request from Lacey during the negotiation session for the city’s negotiation team to explain why Pocatello pays its police officers less than what officers with other nearby police departments earn.
Marotz immediately apologized for his statement during the hearing last week but that did not stop Lacey, other police union members as well as supporters from other local unions from walking out of the meeting
Though the Pocatello attorney representing the police union, Patrick Davis, said the 5 percent annual pay increase offered by the city represents a ton of hard work on behalf of the city’s negotiation team, he also believes there is still much more work to do to move Pocatello police officers’ pay closer to the market average of neighboring police departments.
“I think that today goes a long way,” Davis told the Journal during a Wednesday phone interview after the hearing. “The initial reaction from the officers is that of relief. It goes a long way to help morale and will really give (Pocatello Police) Chief (Roger) Schei an assist to not start his tenure off on a super bumpy foundation.”
Schei, a veteran Pocatello police officer, was recently promoted to the police chief position.
”I look forward to moving forward together in this process,” Schei said about Wednesday’s tentative agreement.
The city’s 5 percent pay increase proposal for Pocatello police officers was close to the offer the union presented during last week’s negotiation hearing, with a few exceptions.
Though the union had asked for a 5 percent annual increase in base salary for every city police officer, it also asked for more opportunities for salary increases within the department and a minor increase in salary when an officer reaches a master rank of patrolman, corporal or sergeant.
The city’s proposal scrubbed the additional pay increase steps for all police officers who are at the maximum compensation level for their rank, though it did offer a one-step pay increase for officers below the maximum compensation level when promoted.
”Rather than accepting our 5 percent proposal that had eight steps so that master patrolmen could also get (a promotion bonus), (the city) kept their same six step matrix,” Davis said. “This helps, but it doesn’t fix it because the biggest problem that the Pocatello police have been facing is that master patrolmen and master sergeants are maxed out (on the city’s pay scale for their rank). Even with increases in percentage of the base pay, their raises are pretty modest, which causes that gap (with what other Idaho police department are paying) to widen.”
When asked why it’s taken several months for the city and police union to agree on a contract, McDougall said, “The city’s negotiating team works in conjunction with the mayor and City Council via discussions in executive session. Based on these discussions, the negotiating team does their best to come to a consensus with the union’s negotiating team and sometimes this requires multiple negotiation sessions and executive sessions before a tentative agreement is signed.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Pocatello Police Patrolman Brandon Vail said even with the 5 percent annual pay hike for Pocatello police, the department’s officers will still be paid as much as 14 percent less than their counterparts in other Idaho police departments.
“With this increase, it does help make us more competitive on this side of the state with other agencies of similar sized departments, population size and call volume,” Vail said.
But he added that even with the 5 percent annual pay hike for Pocatello police, the Idaho Falls Police Department will still pay its officers between 4 percent and 8.5 percent more.
Vail told the city’s negotiation team at Wednesday’s hearing, “With that, we would ask that as we move forward toward next year that we can plan for hopefully making more adjustments to get more in line with the market average for wages on this side of the state.”
The 5 percent annual salary increase will help the Pocatello Police Department in terms of being able to recruit new officers, but failing to significantly increase pay for promotions will only continue to exacerbate the issue of retaining highly trained veteran Pocatello police officers, said Davis, adding that the Pocatello Police Department has recently lost three veteran officers with military experience because of the poor pay.
In addition to the 5 percent annual pay increase in officer pay, the city’s proposal included an increase in the pay differential for different shifts at the Pocatello Police Department, with those officers working overnight shifts receiving the largest shift-based increase of 12 cents per hour.
But the city’s proposal did not address any changes in pay for non-officer Pocatello police employees, a group that includes, among others, dispatchers, crime analysts and stenographers. These members of the Pocatello Police Department are paid at the same rate as general city employees and are set to receive the same 2.5 percent annual pay increase proposed for all city employees for fiscal year 2020.
Mary Rasmussen, a Pocatello police crime analyst, said that studies show these employees who are not police officers undergo the same amount of stress on the job as police officers and should therefore get paid accordingly.
The union plans to address those disparities next year, Davis said.
“The big goal for next year is to create a new matrix that captures the non-sworn Pocatello police members as well,” Davis said. “(The city) did their divide and conquer tactic again and so to an extent we just gave up on that ask.”
Though properly compensating employees is always an important aspect of municipal government, ensuring the city is a good steward of taxpayer dollars is also key, McDougall said.
“Employee compensation is always a challenge the city addresses each budget cycle,” McDougall said. “The city is constantly striving to balance the pay of general, police and fire employees along with its other responsibilities such as parks and streets while recognizing the impact these decisions have on the city’s tax levy.”
Davis said he is hopeful negotiations next year will be a much more collaborative process that involves a bit more give and take from both the city and the police union.
“Next year we want to have a much more collaborative process as this was very old-school positional bargaining, which is really unproductive, is a waste of time and usually nobody gets to a place they want to be,” Davis said. “We’re hoping to have much greater direct participation from the City Council and the mayor’s office because there should be lots and lots of middle ground we can work from.”