Palmetto police vote to unionize

PALMETTO -- Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant says the Palmetto Police Department’s vote to unionize will sap funds from a department budget already tight from the economic downturn.

Palmetto officers voted 16-13 on Feb. 1 to join the Police Benevolent Association and seek the union’s representation in labor negotiations with the city.

But the mayor said the city’s cost to hire a labor attorney -- she guessed it would be between $300 and $350 per hour -- if union negotiations go to a mediator will come out of the police budget.

“Basically, it will have a negative impact on the police department budget,” Groover Bryant said after Monday’s city commission meeting. “I think that’s why I was so disappointed they voted to do that. ... I just feel like we’ve worked so hard to work with the police officers.”

Like other city employees, Palmetto police officers have not received a raise in three years.

The union vote will be certified after 15 days. The union, which represents all officers except the chief and deputy chief, will elect its labor representative thereafter.

Palmetto police have been members of the PBA on two other occasions, from November 1990 to January 1992 and from December 1999 to June 2001.

Police Chief Rick Wells, a former union member intermittently during a 21-year career as a highway patrol officer, said he didn’t take the vote personally. He said much of the impetus for the unionization came from a salary issue that arose several years ago.

“For me, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Wells, who has been chief for six months. “I’m still going to support them in any way I can. ... I understand why some of them think they have to have it, but we’re going to continue to do the things we’ve always done.”

Police Det. Ryan Larot spoke to the commission, saying he opposed the unionization. He said the rank and file “flourished off each other’s discontent” about the salary dispute.

“Scars remind you of where you’ve been, not where you’re going,” he said.

Also Monday, the commission:

n Heard from Groover Bryant, who praised commissioners for rejecting a proposal by grant-writing consultant Deborah Gestner to alter the terms of her contract. The mayor missed a Jan. 25 commission meeting because of an illness. During that meeting, Gestner asked for an additional $14,000 to complete a pair of grants for the Little League baseball fields at Blackstone Park. Groover Bryant disputed Gestner’s claim that the city committed to a definite time frame for the project to be started and that a lengthy delay increased her costs.