Police officers in the city of Johnstown will receive a 3.5 percent salary increase for this year rather than the 8 percent raise their union wanted, according to an arbitration ruling issued by the New York State Public Employment Relations Board on Friday.
The ruling ends two years of failed negotiations between the city and the Johnstown Police Benevolent Association and settles the terms for a new union contract that runs retroactively from Jan. 1, 2007, until the end of this year.
According to the award, police officers will receive a retroactive pay increase of 3 percent for 2007, an $800 increase to their base pay plus a 3.5 percent salary increase effective Jan. 1, 2008, and another 3.5 percent increase starting Jan. 1, 2009. In their prior contract, officers received no raise in 2004 and 3 percent raises in 2005 and 2006. The award also increased the longevity pay for police officers at five, 10, 15 and 20 years of duty by $100 at each step starting this year.
The ruling was written by Jeffrey Selchick, the neutral chairman of the three-member panel appointed by PERB to decide the fate of the contract. The other two members were Johnstown’s labor attorney, Elayne Cold, and PBA attorney Mark Walsh.
Selchick wrote that the pay increases granted to police officers are meant to bring them closer to the pay levels of police officers in Gloversville and Amsterdam. He also said the ruling took into consideration the “nearly catastrophic events that overtook the economy” during the course of the arbitration.
PBA President James Carter said his union’s strategy during negotiations was to increase pay levels to match neighboring police departments and make the department more competitive for new recruits. He said the raises were a little bit less than what his union wanted.
“I guess it would be considered fair based on the economic conditions of society today, I guess,” Carter said. “We work in an area where Amsterdam and Gloversville get paid higher than we do, and we just wanted to be equal with them.”
In testimony before the panel, the PBA argued that even an 8 percent pay raise would not bring its members to parity with comparable police departments and that the union agreed to no pay increase in 2004 “in reliance upon the city’s broken promise that it would be made up to the PBA in the future.”
A top step patrolman in Johnstown in 2006 and 2007 earned $41,254 in base pay, less than a top step officer for Amsterdam, who earned $48,514 in base pay, and for Gloversville, who earned $44,657.
Gold said City Treasurer Mike Gifford’s testimony was crucial to the outcome of the arbitration.
Gifford effectively fought off the union’s arguments by testifying that by the time a Johnstown officer has been employed for 10 years, his or her salary is greater than those of officers in Amsterdam and Gloversville, plus the city’s new-hire salary in 2006 was higher than Amsterdam, Glens Falls and Hudson Falls. The treasurer said it was feasible for the city to pay the 3.5 percent salary increases in the ruling but it would not be fair to force taxpayers to fund 8 percent increases for the Police Department, especially when 3 percent raises were given to the Fire Department and public works employees.
On Friday, Gifford would not characterize the PERB ruling as a victory for the city. He said he used similar numbers to the 3.5 percent raises in his three-year financial projection for the city, which showed that the city would need to raise its property tax levy by 16 percent in 2010 and 17 percent in 2011 unless it cuts employees or revenue increases.
Councilman-at-large Bryan Marcucci said he wasn’t satisfied with the 3.5 percent raises.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think there should be any raises. We’re in tough economic times. It’s too much money; we can’t afford it,” Marcucci said. “If we raise taxes by over 10 percent for three years, you’re going to see a lot of bodies moving out of Johnstown.”
Mayor Sarah Slingerland said she could not comment on the PERB ruling because she hadn’t seen it yet. She said she hoped it was fair for both sides.
The ruling did not change health insurance coverage offered to the police officers, although it does require retiring officers to continue paying the same amount toward their health insurance as they did while they were on active duty. The ruling also grants the police chief and the city council the discretion to grant 30 days of additional sick leave for officers who’ve exhausted their sick time, with the safeguard that officers may appeal denial of sick leave to a mutually selected arbitrator. The prior union contract mandated that officers be eligible for the sick time without approval from the chief.