By Dan Moffett
South Palm Beach Police Chief Carl Webb says morale among officers is better now than at any other time during his 28 years with the department.
“It’s a pleasure now instead of a war,” Webb told the Town Council on May 16. “Historically, through past administrations, it’s been us against them and these officers paid the price for that. We’re beginning the healing process and returning some dignity to these officers.”
The chief said that healing began in April when the town and union officials reached a deal on a new contract for the department’s seven uniformed officers. They had not received a raise since October 2014 and had worked without a new contract since 2015.
At their low point last fall, negotiations deteriorated so far that representatives of the Police Benevolent Association spoke at a town meeting, publicly scolding council members — telling them to dissolve the department and hire the Palm Beach County sheriff, rather than continue to underpay the town’s officers.
According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, South Palm Beach police have ranked near the bottom in wages among county departments, earning roughly 7 percent less across the board last year than neighboring agencies in Manalapan and Ocean Ridge.
Webb credits Town Manager Bob Vitas with breaking the negotiation impasse: “He knew how to do it and he got it done.”
Vitas worked a deal with the union to increase wages in exchange for ending grievance arbitration hearings and replacing them with appeals to a newly created review board. The town saves money on arbitrations, he says, which covers the cost of the raises.
“There was some stuff in that old contract that really was harmful to relationships, and we’ve taken care of that,” Vitas said. “Now we have what I consider a fair agreement on both sides of the aisle.”
The new agreement gives officers an incremental 13 percent raise over the five-year period from 2015 to 2020. The department’s starting salary of $43,500 today will climb to $49,445 by 2020. The top of the range for senior officers is $63,450 in the new contract.
The council unanimously approved the deal, 3-0, with Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan absent. “I’m glad we’re finally going in the right direction,” Mayor Bonnie Fischer said.
In other business, the town’s beach stabilization project faces an important test on June 6 when Palm Beach County commissioners decide whether to accept the easements from property owners, which would allow preliminary work to begin.
“It’s a big day for us,” Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb said.
The town has collected 15 of the 16 easement agreements needed, with the Concordia East condominium still refusing to sign on until county attorneys change the contract’s liability language. Vitas said he believes the county and Concordia ultimately will work out their differences.
Managers of the $5 million project are still hoping to begin constructing concrete groins on the beach in the fall of 2018 and have the system in place by early 2019.`
By Dan Moffett