Votes delayed on new contract for Bradenton police officers

Special to the HeraldJanuary 22, 2014 

BRADENTON -- The Bradenton police union has postponed a vote to approve a new three-year contract for police officers that includes a salary adjustment more in line with other departments in similar size cities.

The union, which had been set to vote Tuesday, asked for a legal opinion regarding some language issues in the contract, following lengthy collective bargaining negotiations that began more than two years ago.

The Bradenton City Council was scheduled to approve the contract at its regular meeting Wednesday. That vote has been tentatively postponed until Feb. 26.

"It's been a process trying to understand the needs of the city and be responsive to our citizens in order to keep taxes low," said Sgt. Sean T. O'Leary, local representative for the Florida Police Benevolent Association. "We want to keep our professional police department professional. It's very tough to retain people when they can travel 40 or 50 miles from Bra

denton and get $10,000 more a year."

Bradenton's Ward 2 Councilman, Gene Brown, who chaired the city's Police Pension Board in the 1990s, said the city is working hard to be fair.

"The situation needs to be balanced. It's delicate. We need to compare apples to apples. I'm hopeful we can get this ratified," Brown said.

The new contract will provide short-term pay increases for 120 Bradenton police officers for the first two years of the agreement. The term of the contract started Oct. 1 and would expire Sept. 30, 2016.

Bradenton police officers haven't received a pay raise since 2009, and O'Leary said the pay scale difference between new, incoming officers and their senior counterparts needs to be adjusted.

These adjustments will be largely offset by a modification to the police pension plan that will result in a long-term cost savings for the city of about $5 million.

The negotiated pension change allows the city to access about $700,000 of excess funds, collected from homeowner insurance premiums that are now restricted from use in the pension plan. This one-time only access will allow the city to fund the raises without adding to the city budget.

However, the third year of the contract could pose a financial challenge for the city, when contract negotiations with the police union for the final year are scheduled to take place.

Barbara Hitzemann, human resources director for the city of Bradenton, acknowledges officer salaries need to be aligned with the market. In light of this, she says the union has been cooperating to help achieve savings.

"The police should be commended for working with the city in order to accomplish the goals of both parties," Hitzemann said. "I believe if the union approves the new contract, the council will approve it."

O'Leary did not say when the union might vote on the contract.

A first-year Bradenton police officer earns around $39,000 a year, while a senior officer with 20 years of experience averages about $64,000 annually. Officers with 20 years of service at age 45 and older can receive a full annual pension equivalent to 60 percent of the average of their top three annual salaries, which Hitzemann says can become unsustainable over time

Last June, the Bradenton police union and the city negotiated a one-time lump sum stipend of $1,500 for union members with more than a year of service in return for pension plan changes for new officers to the department. The union said it was a way of congratulating officers for a job well done since they hadn't had a raise.

With the postponement of the PBA vote, O'Leary says it's not out of the question contract ratification could end in an impasse, since the city and union have presented final offers.

"Passions are obviously running very high and our officers want to feel like they're not being taken advantage of," Leary said. "City government is a business, and business is in business to take care of itself."

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