Derek J. Moore
Contract negotiations between Santa Rosa and its police officers are at an impasse that could lead to binding arbitration for the first time.
The 126-member Santa Rosa Police Officers Association has been working without a contract since June while union leaders and city negotiators have met several times seeking a deal.
Neither side will say publicly what the stalemate entails, although union leaders said salaries are among the issues being discussed.
Santa Rosa officers are paid $59,328 to $72,048 annually under a four-year contract approved in 2001.
The union formally notified the city in a Sept. 15 letter that negotiations were at an impasse and that the matter would have to be resolved through arbitration.
Santa Rosa voters passed Measure A in 1996 giving police and firefighters the right to demand binding arbitration on any unresolved differences.
Both sides said they hope they can resolve the matter without a protracted fight.
“Absolutely,” City Manager Jeff Kolin said. “That’s always our objective.”
Rockne Lucia, an attorney representing the police union, said arbitration “is not something we wanted to do, but we felt we had no choice.”
The two sides have been in mediation and another session is scheduled Dec. 2. In the meantime, lawyers for both sides are in the process of selecting arbitrators. Arbitration hearings would be open to the public.
Kolin declined to comment on the negotiations.
Union leaders contend the city is not serious about recruiting and retaining qualified police officers, one of the Police Department’s most pressing concerns.
Chief Ed Flint has estimated the department needs to hire 62 officers by the end of 2007 to make up for current and projected vacancies.
Union leaders say experienced officers are reluctant to transfer to Santa Rosa because of the pay. They say the city will spend more money in the long run training cadets fresh from the academy than by raising police salaries.
Another hangup in the talks appears to be disagreement over which cities to use for comparison purposes in determining how much Santa Rosa officers should make.
Union leaders praised Petaluma’s City Council, which on Oct. 17 authorized a 30 percent pay raise over three years for police officers.
As a result, the minimum salary for a Petaluma officer will go from $50,502 to $65,653 by July 2008. Top scale will go from $64,438 to $83,769.
Petaluma council members “have a concern for their citizens,” said Officer Jim Camara, the Santa Rosa union president. “They want to retain their officers.”
Union leaders say several Santa Rosa officers have applied for jobs with other agencies where opportunities to serve in specialized units, such as narcotics and schools, still exist.
Flint disbanded many such units in favor of putting more officers on patrol. He also instituted mandatory overtime, which union leaders say has led to burnout and low morale.
“Some officers aren’t happy and they’re looking for work elsewhere,” said Officer Eric Goldschlag, a 17-year veteran and a member of the union’s executive board.
Flint, who is not a part of the negotiations, acknowledged that not having a contract has had “some impact” on recruiting but declined to comment on the union’s other concerns.
He said he remains optimistic that officers and the city can reach an agreement without resorting to arbitration.
“The door’s still open,” he said. “There’s still room for negotiations. I know both sides want to reach a mutual agreement. I want that, too.”
In June, the Santa Rosa Police Management Association, which represents 19 sergeants, agreed to a one-year contract with a 5.15 percent pay raise.
The city also agreed to contribute another 3 percent of salary to a health care stipend that sergeants can use when they retire and to increase its contribution to the health care plan for sergeants.
Some sergeants are entitled to another 5 percent pay increase, based on experience, education and the number of special assignments they have handled.
The increases boosted the salary range for sergeants to $85,104 to $110,196.