San Marcos City Councilmembers John Thomaides (left) and Chris Jones (right) put questions to city staff about contracts with the police and firefighters. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
With two 5-2 votes Tuesday night, the San Marcos City Council approved employment agreements with police and firefighters worth $2.7 million during the next three years.
The agreements will raise average salaries for the city’s 95 sworn police personnel by $19,400 at the end of three years, while 52 firefighters would be increased an average of $20,000 per year after three years.
Councilmembers John Thomaides and Gaylord Bose cast the only votes against the two meet and confer agreements. Each vote came after a lengthy round of questioning that mostly consisted in Thomaides and Councilmember Chris Jones asking for specifics from city staff.
Thomaides said he supports provisions of the police contract offering education incentives, residency incentives and more latitude in the police chief’s hiring ability, but he opposes the increases in longevity and base pay.
Responding to a question from Thomaides, San Marcos City Manager Rick Menchaca said a market study conducted recently by the city indicated projected turnover rates for the police and fire departments without the new contracts would have been at an “acceptable level.”
Menchaca and Assistant City Manager Collette Jamison said the city’s police and firefighters are paid at market rates even without the contract that will increase their salaries.
“Both police and fire have the lowest turnover rates in the entire organization, of all of our departments,” Thomaides said. Menchaca did not dispute Thomaides’ assessment.
However, Menchaca said the city should offer more competitive compensation to police and fire fighters to make sure they stick around longer than three to five years, which is when the city sometimes loses those employees to other cities.
San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz said that while she “appreciated the dialogue” concerning the employment agreements and considered questions raised by critical colleagues to be valid, those questions had already been addressed by the city’s staff, whose judgment should be trusted.
Narvaiz said that the city is beginning to experience the retirements of its finest police officers and fire fighters, who would be difficult to replace, as “we are in a different world today,” in her words. Narvaiz said that although police and firefighters do not necessarily address major public safety issues every day, they do provide somewhat “unnoticed” daily services to the community “that no one talks about,” such as helping senior citizens install and check fire alarms and being first responders to all car accidents.
“Yes, we are all in the private sector, but we don’t put our lives on the line like when firemen or police officers go to their jobs,” said Councilmember Pam Couch, arguing for the contracts. “We all have to be smart business people up here, but in my line of thinking, there’s not enough money to pay any of y’all for the kind of job you perform.”
But Thomaides said the agreements do not seem designed to make the city safer because they do not increase the numbers of fire fighters or police officers in the city. Thomaides said during “troubling economic times,” when those in the public sector are not generally experiencing pay increases, the council should not give fire and police pay increases of the magnitude stipulated in the agreements.
“In terms of recruitment, in terms of retention, and in terms of pay parity, we are right there with a lot of our peer cities,” Thomaides said.
Bose said it might not be fair to offer police officers and fire fighters the pay increases stipulated in the agreements without offering increases to other city employees.
“I don’t want to put us in a stranglehold we can’t afford,” Bose said.
Included in the funding obligation sections of the two contracts are clauses allowing meet and confer negotiations to open for 60 days to reach a new deal if the city council determines that it cannot meet the funding obligations after considering “operational and administrative costs, including its debt service obligations, the increases in other employee personnel costs, and the obligations arising under this Agreement.”
The collectively bargained deal for firefighters includes a $742,000 wage package that provides an average compensation increase of 4.7 percent per year. The agreement increases fire fighter base pay 2.25 percent in year two and 2.25 again in year three of the contract. The agreement includes a longevity pay scale that would pay a 20-year veteran an extra $2,640.
The agreement sets aside $50,000 as incentives to encourage fire fighters to live within the city limits. Of the San Marcos Fire Rescue’s 52 fire fighters, eight live within the city limits. The city will determine what form the residency incentives will take at a later date. The agreement also offers association business leave pay for fire fighters conducting business for their bargaining organization, the San Marcos Professional Fire Fighters Association (SMPFFA).
The police officers’ new employment agreement includes a $1.8 million wage package that provides across-the-board raises of 1.75 percent in year two of the contract and 2.25 percent in year three for the city’s 95 police officers. The employment agreement includes a longevity pay scale capping at an extra $4,008 for a 20-year veteran. The agreement includes numerous other “soft pay” salary additions for night shift differential, educational attainment and multiple languages.
The agreement allows the police chief to choose every fifth new hire according to his own discretion, rather than be bound by law to choose the highest-scoring applicant on a civil service examination.
As of Nov. 2, the city had paid law firm Denton, Navarro, Rocha and Bernal (DNRB) more than $70,000 to represent the city in about 14 nine-hour rounds of meet and confer negotiations with each professional association. In early November, the city council in early November voted to pay up to $45,000 more to the DNRB for its work. DNRB drafted the employment agreements with the two associations.
In 2005, San Marcos voters approved civil service for police and fire fighters. The city has negotiated with the police and fire fighters for the last year under Menchaca, who became city manager in May 2008.
Each agreement is for three years, expiring at the end of 2012.Email | Print