That is the driving force behind last week's approval of a new contract that grants the city's rank and file police officers a whopping 25 percent pay increase over the next three years, just to catch up with, and gain an advantage over, other Peninsula cities that compete for what is a very limited supply of candidates. The law of supply and demand has put police unions in the driver's seat when it comes to commanding significant pay increases every year.
In prior years, Menlo Park's strategy had been to keep its pay structure in the mid range of what similar Peninsula cities were paying. But recently, other cities have approved more drastic salary increases, putting the city near the bottom of the group and at an extreme disadvantage when trying to attract new recruits or convince officers already working elsewhere to make a "lateral" move to Menlo Park. With more than 30 officers leaving the 50-person force in the last three years, it became imperative to make a dramatic change that would once again put Menlo Park on a relatively equal footing with its peer cities.
Besides simply getting outbid for officers, Menlo Park also found it often was paying $80,000 or more to send an officer to the police academy and train him or her for patrol work, only to see the officer resign for a higher-paying job elsewhere on the Peninsula. This revolving door was particularly hard on the remaining officers, who were often pressed into working extra shifts on overtime just to cover the city's minimum patrol requirements.
The City Council and staff found themselves backed into a corner with few alternatives, which led to the 25 percent increase that will take the starting line officer's pay from about $71,000 to about $89,000 by January 2011. Despite the hefty cost of the package — $1.72 million over the life of the contract — support for the city's police officers remains high at City Hall.
But while they recover from the sticker shock of this pay raise, council members need to look at the bigger question before Menlo Park and many other Peninsula cities: how to slow the runaway growth in public safety compensation, which has been skyrocketing in recent years and shows no sign of slowing. With retirees able to take home 90 percent of their highest pay after 30 years of service at age 50, the cities will soon be paying even more for officers who are no longer in uniform.
The City Council was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place when members approved the police contract last week. But that was the easy decision. Now the city must craft a budget that will cover the much higher costs, and hopefully develop a strategy to stay in front of the public safety curve without breaking the bank.