The city’s arbitrator is willing to consider a binding police contract that restricts compensatory time off, bucking a trend in which Schenectady’s arbitrated contracts focus on pay raises and nothing else.
The Public Employment Relations Board said the comp time issue would be fair game for the arbitrators, but city arbitrator and Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden would still need to get one of his fellow arbitrators to side with him to make any decisions on the matter.
The three appointed arbitrators — one chosen by the city, one by the police union, and then one chosen by the two — will begin meeting Thursday to make their final decisions on the contract. Van Norden said it may take months for them to agree to a two-year contract.
Going into the first meeting, Van Norden said he intends to consider any issues raised by either the city or the police union except for those that are banned under state statute. PERB officials said that leaves the door wide open. Arbitrators can retain, remove or change any item currently in the police contract, according to PERB Director of Litigation David Quinn.
Van Norden said the comp time issue in particular seemed safe to discuss.
“It is a pay scale thing,” he said.
Quinn agreed that the arbitrators could legally change the city’s comp time policy. In other cities, he said, arbitrators do make wide-ranging decisions in contract disputes.
But in Schenectady’s history at least, arbitrators usually change little beyond the officers’ actual salary. So even though Van Norden indicated a willingness to take on bigger issues, Mayor Brian U. Stratton said he’s still expecting the arbitrators to approve a cost-of-living raise and little else.
“It’s too bad. It’s the real substantive issues that lead to management reform,” he said. “It’s probably not likely. If something happens and they see the light, that would be wonderful — but I’m not counting on it.”
Despite his pessimism, he tried hard to persuade the arbitrators to limit comp time.
“The runaway comp time and union time leads to tremendous staffing problems,” he said.
Stratton wants police to be simply paid for all overtime work. He has cited an internal analysis of police compensatory time usage, which found it would be cheaper to pay officers overtime than to let them continue to take time off in exchange for time worked.
comp time issue
A Sunday Gazette review also found that police use their accumulated comp days to avoid working weekends, to the point where many weekend shifts are severely understaffed. On some Saturday evenings, only five officers reported for duty, forcing the city to call in other staff on overtime.
Quinn said the arbitrators can clearly rule on the comp time issue because a policy for it already exists.
Although the governing statute says that arbitrators can make decisions on “wages, salaries, hours and other terms of employment,” the “other” clause has been determined to mean everything else in the contract, Quinn said .
There are no other rules to guide the arbitrators, Quinn added.
There are a lot of issues for the arbitrators to consider.
Stratton has said he wants contractual restrictions on compensatory time and union time, promotions by merit instead of seniority, and an employee contribution to health insurance costs.
Police union President Robert Hamilton has not made his proposals public, but has said the city keeps changing its priorities and proposals, making it impossible to come up with compromises.
Both sides agree on one thing: They don’t think the arbitrated contract will solve any of their disputes.
Whatever decisions are made will probably come from just one arbitrator, even though the panel consists of three members.
That’s because the city and the union each get to appoint one member. Van Norden is the city’s arbitrator, while the union sent its attorney, Michael Ravalli. A third arbitrator was chosen when city and union officials crossed every other name off a list provided by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
Since the city and union attorneys generally do not agree with each other, the third arbitrator usually breaks the tie.
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