In impasse resolution meeting, commissioners agree with pay-raise package and staying with town's retirement plan. Union sought access to Florida's pension system as top issue.
Town Commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to back the town's proposals for wages and retirement benefits, rejecting police union proposals in an impasse hearing meant to settle two contested issues in negotiations for a new three-year contract.
After a four-hour meeting at Town Hall in which both sides presented and rebutted proposals, Commissioners voted to approve step raises of 4% for officers and 3.5% for sergeants and retain the officers in the town's retirement plan. The town proposed to increase the level of its contribution to union members' market-driven 401 (a) accounts, similar to a private-sector 401(k).
The Southwest Florida Police Benevolent Association sought access for the town's 11 officers and four sergeants to the Florida Retirement System, a plan that operates like a traditional pension. The town's fire department union has participated in FRS since 2013 but made wage concessions of about 11% at the time. The town's police union was offered access to the FRS in 2013 but rejected it then.
The union's pay proposal sought higher minimum and maximum salaries across the board than what the town proposed.
In approving the town's proposals for wages and retirement, commissioners made the changes retroactive to Oct. 1. The union and town agreed to bypass a special magistrate to settle impasse issues and went straight to the commission consideration.
The deal, which also includes nine tentative agreements on other points of negotiation, now goes to the town's officers and sergeants for a ratification vote. If they approve it, it goes into effect until 2022, though Town Commissioners would hold one more vote on the overall contract. If officers and sergeants reject the offer, the pay and retirement components are imposed for the remainder of the fiscal year and negotiations would likely resume. The other elements of the contract revert to the previous deal.
Union lawyer Caroleen Brej said at the outset of negotiations in January, the department's retirement plan was top of mind. And, she said, it was hard to understand why they town's firefighters were allowed to participate in FRS while police officers were not.
"Participation in the Florida Retirement System is the PBA's number one priority for current members of the Longboat Key Police Department,'' she said. "The police department and the PBA made multiple concessions during the negotiation process to allocate funds which we believe the town has that the town can then utilize toward the members' participation in FRS.''
FRS pays benefits to about 415,000 retired employees and more than 640,000 active employees take part in the system statewide, according to a state report. The average retiree on the system collects about $22,000 in annual benefits and workers have donated 3% of their salaries to the system since 2011, with the towns, counties, universities and state agencies they work for contributing the rest. Police officers in the system, because of the risk inherent in their careers, earn higher rates than civilians, averaging about $43,000 in annual benefits.
FRS, since 2008-9 when it lost more than 19%, has been on a 10-year upward trend. Overall, it's seen 21 years of double-digit growth and five negative years.
"We believe the town values both the fire department and the police department equally and that both the fire department and the police department should be equally rewarded,'' Brej said.
Brej pointed to a point in the negotiations over the summer at which the union took off the table a proposal to establish a new policy of take-home patrol vehicles for officers and sergeants, which would have cost an estimated $360,000. Brej also pointed to the town's so-called rainy-day fund of about 200 days of operating cash as evidence of the town's strong financial position and ability to enroll officers in FRS.
"We're merely asking for the opportunity to get into a system that we could clearly recognize the effort on behalf of the officers who provide public safety,'' said Southwest Florida PBA president Mick McHale.
Reynolds Allen, the town's labor negotiator, said the town was hesitant to join the FRS system because of future financial uncertainties and the inflexible nature of a retirement plan controlled by outside agencies. He noted that because it is a defined-benefit plan, the town's burden on funding retirements could rise if the economy faltered, as it did in the early 21st century. "The union says you're not paying as much for the police as you are with fire,'' he said. "That's true, thank goodness. We're not happy with what we pay for FRS but there's not anything we could do about it.
"We don't want to be in a situation where someone else controls what we have to pay, what we have to tax our citizens for in order to pay for it,'' Allen said. "We want our elected officials to be able to make that decision. In a 401 (a), you can do that.''
Town Manager Tom Harmer said it would be unwise to rely on the town's savings to pay for recurring expenses and noted the town used more than $460,000 from that fund to balance the general fund budget in the budget passed in September.
"For a barrier coastal island, we never have enough,'' he said. "And we don't have enough now for a potential Hurricane Michael.''
Brej said the union's wage proposals were based on moving the department pay scale to one equivalent with market rates for police departments and sheriff's agencies throughout Southwest Florida. Both sides presented lists of agencies for comparison sake, though there was disagreement over the departments used.
The union included Tampa, St. Petersburg, Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens, which the town had refused to consider.
The town had included Bradenton Beach, which traditionally slots in at the low end of comparative pay scales.
After extended periods of back and forth about comparable departments, some on the Commission spoke up.
"What's relevant and what the real thing here is the percentage increase. that's the only thing that's relevant,'' Commissioner Irwin Pastor said. "At the end of the day, the number one concern of this commission and our citizens is that we be competitive. And in fact, we are competitive.
Town employees in the newest budget averaged a 3.5% wage increase. Harmer himself received a 3% raise. Officers in the town's proposal receive 4% and sergeants 3.5%.
"If we're focused on equivalents, I can't see any more equivalence than that,'' Commissioner Ken Schneier said.