By Tim O’Meilia
After two years of negotiating, the town of South Palm Beach and its new five-member police union agreed on their first three-year contract, which gives officers a $1,500 bonus in the first year.
On the cusp of imposing a one-year contract because of lack of an agreement, Town Council members and the police worked out the longer-term deal during a five-hour session Oct. 22.
The union had sought a 1 percent increase to members’ base pay and then increased the demand to add a lump-sum 1 percent payment when the contract was ratified. The town had agreed to the 1 percent but didn’t want to increase the base pay because of the town’s financial uncertainty.
Town Council members said they were sympathetic to the police but pointed to the loss of 40 percent of the town’s tax base since 2008. No town employees have received a raise in four years.
The rate of base pay is significant, because it’s used to calculate an employee’s future pension benefits.
South Palm Beach Police Officer Mark McKirchy, the union representative, said council members persuaded him and the other three officers at the meeting (the fifth was on duty) that the council would consider base pay increases in the future.
“We didn’t want to start with no base pay increase. We haven’t had a raise in four years, and three more years would be seven years,” McKirchy said. “We were willing to forgo any kind of raise, but they found money for a stipend, so our fear was that was the way it was going to be in the future,” he said. “We felt that they listened to us.” Under the proposed contract, the police would receive another $1,000 the second year or the right to reopen talks over wages. The increases would not be applied to their base pay.
The union members must ratify the new contract by a majority vote and the Town Council then must approve it before the agreement is final, perhaps in November. McKirchy said his fellow officers would ratify the deal.
Although the officers voted to unionize in October 2010, negotiations dragged on for two years before the sides declared an impasse. A special magistrate’s hearing resolved some issues but seven remained, forcing the Town Council to consider imposing a contract, as required by state law.
“Ultimately this is about a difference in philosophy,” said Police Benevolent Association attorney Gary Lippman, representing the five officers. “You’ve expended about $40,000 in legal fees fighting these officers for $229 per month. Not per officer, but total per month.”
Jeffrey Pheterson, the town’s union attorney, said the first contract was critical because it sets the basis for all future contracts.
Four of the issues were agreed to relatively quickly during the Oct. 22 meeting. Besides wages, the sides could not agree immediately on shift assignment and arbitration procedures.
“It’s not Mayberry and Barney Fife hasn’t turned into a Bolshevik here,” Lippman said. “These are relatively modest requests.”
The union wanted the permanent 12-hour shifts to be assigned based on seniority with the department. Town officials wanted to preserve the chief’s right to switch to rotating shifts.
“The chief already takes it personally that there’s a union,” said PBA negotiator Vinnie Gray. “The officers have a well-founded fear that he may overstep his bounds and do shift changes.”
Currently, officers said they agree on the shifts and the police chief signs off on them.
“My philosophy is I don’t care who works what shift as long as the shift is covered,” Police Chief Roger Crane said.
Finally, the sides agreed that the officers could work out the shifts and seniority would prevail if an agreement couldn’t be made. The chief retains the right to make reasonable shift changes.
The union accepted the town’s insistence that the arbitrator of a grievance could uphold or deny a management ruling on disciplinary issues but could not alter the punishment.
“Apparently there’s been some bad blood,” Vice Mayor Joseph Flagello said of relations between Crane and the union. “At least that’s what I’m hearing. I hope that diminishes with this contract.”