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Gainesville Commission To Hold Hearing On Police Union Contract

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After almost two years of negotiation, the union representing Gainesville police officers may soon have a new contract.

The city commission will hold a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Friday at City Hall before voting on the impasse between city management and Fraternal Order of Police Gator Lodge 67, which also represents corporals and sergeants.

The commission will choose from resolutions proposed by the FOP, management or a hybrid. Florida law mandates that the union’s members must vote on whatever the commission decides. If accepted, the agreement would take effect immediately and last until Sept. 3, 2019. If not, the two sides would resume negotiating.

“You would have to go back to the 1990s to find an impasse that went to a public hearing,” said Steve Varvel, the city’s risk management director. “There have been some bargaining processes that ended with one side declaring impasse, but those issues were resolved by management and the bargaining units before a hearing was necessary.”

Management and the FOP have been negotiating a three-year contract since October 2016. 

In May 2017, the union declared an impasse. A few months later, an independent special magistrate, James Stokes of Indian River County, was appointed to help resolve it. Stokes issued a report in which he mostly agreed with the FOP. The city rejected most of his recommendations.

Four issues are in dispute: hours of work, wages, overtime and benefits. Stokes said in his report that the two sides “have almost diametrically opposite concepts on wages moving forward.”

The biggest disagreement is about pay raises for union members.

The FOP proposes a definitive step plan corresponding to years of service and a salary increase of about 2 percent per step, according to the report. The city wants a flat-rate increase for all employees across the board. The magistrate recommended that the city adopt the step plan.

“The problem with the city’s offer,” said Matt Goeckel, the FOP spokesman and a detective with the police department, “is that it … contributes to an issue we have been having for probably the last 20 years.”

That would be pay compression, which occurs when there is a small difference in pay between employees regardless of their skills or experience.

A FOP post on Facebook in May said that salaries are causing problems at the department.

“The Gainesville Police Department continues to struggle to recruit qualified candidates for police officer positions because officer salaries and benefits are not comparable to similar agencies around the state,” the post states.

GPD is ranked 36 out of 85 for officer salaries when compared to similar departments using data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s 2017 Criminal Justice Agency Report. Similar departments are those that have two officers for every 1,000 citizens.

Scott Heffner, the city’s employee and labor relations manager, said management has focused on neighboring counties to compare statistics.

According to data found in the state agency report, GPD has the highest paid officers and its sergeants are the second highest when compared to departments in Alachua, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion and Putnam Counties.

Police officer salaries from data in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s 2017 Criminal Justice Agency Report. The departments presented are from Alachua, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion and Putnam Counties.

In March, GPD had only 279 officers out of a possible 307 budgeted, Police Chief Tony Jones said.

As of Thursday, the department was down 51 “solo members,” that is, those eligible to answer emergency calls, Officer Benjamin Tobias, a FOP member but also a spokesman for the department, wrote in an email. While 22 were considered vacant, 29 men and women are in various stages of training, either at the police academy or in the field; the earliest any of them would be eligible to answer calls would be November, Tobias said.

The magistrate’s report said the FOP contends that the city has $9.5 million that it can allocate toward employee raises and several million dollars in surplus revenues.

“What we are asking for is not out of the realm of what the city can do,” Goeckel said.

Management says otherwise. Heffner said that the FOP is basing its assumptions on financial statements that are almost two years old. In September 2017, there was still $16.2 million unassigned, but a large portion of that money is in a minimum reserve fund balance.

“The rest was spent down on Hurricane Irma and the Spencer event expenses, city commission funding for an economic development program, additional homeless services funding and enterprise zone seed money, as well as establishment of a disaster reserve,” Heffner said.

After all these items are calculated, the estimated amount available is about $400,000, he said.

Some GPD officers have recently gone to social media to voice their opinion on the impasse.

On Sunday, Tobias posted on his Facebook an open letter to the commission and management detailing why he believes in what the FOP is proposing.

“The appreciation, salary and benefits of the people that serve and protect this great city should not be a bargaining chip, especially when the money is there,” he said.

About Devoun Cetoute

Devoun is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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