Fact Check: The Police Pay Drought - Voice of San Diego

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Fact Check: The Police Pay Drought

Mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher claimed police officers haven’t received salary hikes since 2008 and that their current labor contract leaves them without such increases for a decade.

Image: MisleadingStatement: “Officer salaries have not increased since 2008; under the current labor agreement, officers are slated to go a full 10 years without increases,” mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher wrote in his police plan, released Oct. 7.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: The San Diego Police Department is struggling to hire enough officers to replace those who are leaving.

On Monday, Nathan Fletcher was the latest mayoral candidate to release a plan to tackle the problem. (Rivals Kevin Faulconer and Mike Aguirre shared their blueprints last week.)

In his six-page roadmap, Fletcher emphasized the need for more competitive compensation packages to attract new officers and retain current ones. He made a powerful claim to drive home that point: Officers’ salaries haven’t increased since 2008 and the city’s current labor deal with its officers ensures they won’t receive raises for a decade.  The city’s police union made a similar statement in a presentation shared with city leaders during spring budget talks.

Police pay has become a hot topic for mayoral candidates and city leaders.  City Councilwoman Marti Emerald recently announced that she’ll ask fellow public safety subcommittee members to consider reopening the city’s current contract with its police union at a meeting later this month, which could lead to a City Council vote on pay increases. As these discussions progress, it’s crucial to know the details of officers’ pay schemes and whether they are set to go a decade without raises per a contract signed just months ago.

Let’s start by looking at the last time police officers received straightforward pay increases. In 2007, officers in the city’s police union received 6 percent salary increases amid former Mayor Jerry Sanders’ concerns about police turnover. Some officers were also able to take advantage of a 1 percent increase associated with an education incentive program.  At the end of that year, Sanders gave police another 2 percent salary bump.

The next year also came with pay boosts. Police received 3 percent increases in both July and December.

The city’s approach changed the following year. Sanders called for 6 percent compensation cuts for all city staffers.

For police union members, that turned out to be a 1.5 percent salary reduction. The city also stopped picking up a portion of staffers’ annual pension payments and trimmed flex health benefits.

San Diego Police Officers Association President Brian Marvel says the latter two cuts rounded out an overall 6 percent drop in police compensation.

For many city staffers, compensation remained stagnant for the next few years. City voters agreed that was the best approach going forward last June when they approved a pension reform initiative. The measure’s greatest savings relied on five-year contracts with city unions that incorporated a freeze on the portion of an employee’s salary that goes toward their pension.

City leaders managed to broker such deals this past summer. The city’s agreement with its police union calls for a 7 percent compensation increase over the next five years, starting with a 2 percent hike this year.

There’s a reason I called that a compensation increase. Proposition B, the pension initiative, bars traditional raises so the city has to get creative to reward its employees.

For police, that meant forgoing overtime for working holidays to save $3,203 per officer in health care costs during the 2014 fiscal year.

This, of course, isn’t a straightforward salary increase. Officers saw improved benefits as part of the five-year labor deal but they haven’t seen across-the-board pay hikes since 2008.

But city records show many officers have still gotten pay increases.

Earlier this year, Faulconer asked the city’s independent budget analyst to provide a breakdown of city staffers who have received salary increases since 2009.

In that report, budget analyst Lisa Byrne concluded that about half of the city’s roughly 10,000 workers have received pay increases since July 2009, when Sanders instituted the 6 percent cuts.

I requested more detailed city personnel data.

Here’s a look at what I found.

 

Police Who Got Salary Hikes

 

Personnel department records showed 1,385 officers have received salary increases since 2009. That’s about 75 percent of the city’s roughly 1,840-officer force.

The reasons behind the salary increases are most straightforward for the 155 officers hired since Sanders’ cuts went into effect. The majority likely received increases hashed out before they took their jobs.

Police recruits get a pay boost after they graduate from the police academy and again if they meet certain qualifications after a given period of time. Another salary increase or two also isn’t uncommon within an officer’s first four years on the job.

These hikes are known as step increases, or agreed-upon salary bumps laid out in the city’s contracts with each of its unions. They’re generally based on the time a worker has spent with the city and various department-specific standards.

Current and former city workers, including Fletcher spokeswoman Rachel Laing, argue those hikes are meant to simply keep up with inflation and allow wage increases for entry-level employees who gain more skills with years on the job. In the city, for example, police officers are typically only eligible for increases in their first several years unless they are promoted to a supervisory role.

It’s less clear how many of the other 1,230 officers who received raises got them as a result of step increases.

All were working for the city when Sanders imposed compensation cuts on city workers and it’s likely many received promotions as well as step increases but we couldn’t immediately confirm that.

Donna Wallace, the city’s assistant personnel director, said the software system the city uses to track such records requires city officials to look at each employee record to determine exactly why he or she received an increase.

For that reason, Wallace said the city can’t quickly confirm how many officers received promotions, or how many received step increases.

Still, the raw personnel department numbers challenge Fletcher’s claim.

He suggested police wages haven’t increased since 2008 and that the city’s current labor agreement would have officers go a decade without increases but many officers have received salary increases.

And though at least some of those police employees were promoted, many received so-called step increases.

There’s certainly a significant difference between a promotion and a step increase. The latter is an agreed-upon salary increase while a promotion comes with more responsibility.

Still, it’s obvious that many officers received pay increases despite the lack of across-the-board salary hikes since 2008.

We dub a statement misleading when it takes an element of truth and badly distorts or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.

This ruling applies here because while officers haven’t received across-the-board raises in years – and have endured benefit cuts – many have seen salary hikes anyway.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Clarification: This post has been updated to better clarify the city’s past practice of offsetting staffers’ pension payments. Until fiscal year 2010, the city picked up 4.1 percent of police officers’ annual pension contributions.

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