July 10,  2009

County cops avoid both
pay cuts and lay-offs

After many weeks of what both sides say was tough bargaining over what started out as an either-or proposition -- pay cuts or lay-offs -- the Coons administration and the police union managed to find some middle ground in which to plant a three-year contract.

The 62-page agreement with Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, released on July 9 by County Executive Christopher Coons's office, calls for police officers collectively to "give back" the equivalent of 5% of their total compensation in various ways other than reduced salaries. A press statement said that will be accomplished by concessions "spread across increased health-care contributions, [and] reductions in overtime, court stand-by and holiday pay."

That is the key provision to effect the $1.2 million reduction in the pay-and-benefits line of the police department's fiscal 2010 budget enacted by County Council, which took effect July 1.

In return, the union received a firm contractual commitment that there will be no lay-offs of department personnel between now and June 30, 2011, when the contract expires. Union president Joe Lavelle told Delaforum that he considers that "the biggest strong point" in the agreement.

The press statement said that a $1.6 million federal grant already received from the U.S. Department of Justice will be used to retain five officers and the 10 cadets now being trained in the police academy.  The county also has applied for an $8 million grant under the Community Oriented Policing Services program -- which goes by the acronym Cops -- which could be used, in part, to pay officers. County spokesman Charles McLeod said it will not be known until September how much the county will receive.

Lavelle declined to reveal the tally of votes by which members of the union ratified the contract on July 8 other than to say it was "by a substantial margin." The union has 373 members.

George Smiley, co-chairman of County Council's finance committee, said he believes the contract to be "fiscally responsible." It must be ratified by Council, he said.

The contract is retroactive to Apr. 1, 2008. Police officers have been working without a contract since then.

Unlike other county unions which earlier agreed to accept 5% pay cuts, the police union's agreement is a new contract. The others constituted amendments to contracts which also expired last year but which remained in force until new ones are negotiated. After the union representing county paramedics rejected the administration's request for concessions, nine paramedic trainees were let go. As a result, union paramedics are the only county employees being paid at rates which were in effect during the previous fiscal year.

The police concessions are covered by extensive contract verbiage which boils down to a limit on what officers can earn beyond their regular salaries -- between $44,889 and $95,546 a year, depending upon rank and length of service.

Under the new contract, the department is limited in the amount it can pay for overtime in both this and the next fiscal year to $783,000. When that is spent, officers will be required to take compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay. Such compensatory time, however, cannot be taken during the current fiscal year. The pay ceiling will be raised in fiscal 2011 if federal money to cover the additional cost is received.

Officers will not receive a premium beyond their regular pay for holiday work this year. If federal money is received, the department can pay up to a total of $75,000 in premium pay for holiday work in fiscal 2011.

Officers will not be paid nor receive compensatory time off while on call for possible court appearances during the current year. If federal money is received, the department can pay up to a total of $75,000 in standby pay in fiscal 2011.

During the current and next fiscal years, officers will be required to contribute a surcharge on premiums for health insurance. Total surcharges of $121,500 are to be spread evenly over the entire force, but those amounts will be designated as 'pre-tax' and not count against taxable income for either federal or state income-tax purposes.

The press statement said the agreement "recognizes compensation provisions unique to [police officers]."

Bottom line in all that is that the new contract permits county government to continue to provide residents with police protection at current levels. During a series of town meeting-style 'listening sessions' early this calendar year, it was obvious that public safety is their top priority.

Lavelle indicated that he is generally satisfied that the contract is the best that could be achieved in light of county government's current financial situation. If nothing else, he said, it is better to be working under a contract than without one.

The press statement quotes police chief and acting director of public safety Rick Gregory as saying, "The sacrifice of the [union] members combined with federal support will allow us to make a critical investment in sustaining and potentially 'growing' our agency."

McLeod said that Coons and other county officials have been and remain in close contact with Vice President Joe Biden's office in their quest for federal dollars. Biden was primary sponsor of the legislation which established the 'Cops' program when he was a U.S. senator.

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Read previous Delaforum article: County police union voting on contract

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