Viewpoint - April 16, 2008

Editorial: Spiraling costs of public employees

Menlo Park is learning a costly lesson about compensation for its valued public safety employees: What may look like a bargain contract one year can come back to haunt you the next.

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.


Posted by Realistic, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 16, 2008 at 7:51 am

The "bargain contracts" of the past weren't at the heart of the problem. The council and city manager, David Boesch, ignored the extreme decline in morale caused by cronyism and bad management at the top. I don't know if these problems exist now, under Goitia's management, but it was apparent by the number of officers leaving and by what some of the more vocal ones said that the real problem was being ignored by city officials. Now the city's taxpayers are paying the price. Sad.

Posted by What do you know, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 16, 2008 at 5:34 pm

It's easy to throw out terms like "...extreme decline in morale caused by cronyism and bad management at the top." with no facts. Funny, how the City began negotiations and raised salaries to a competitive level and are now able to staff its Police workforce. Until you have been in a position to know the challenges in recruiting and retain sworn personnel (especially those that come from other agencies), and you have your facts straight - or any facts at all - then perhaps your opinion is worth about as much as a lower negotiatied contract would have been worth in keeping and attracting sworn personnel... and that would be worth nothing.

Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 16, 2008 at 7:12 pm

What do you know,

Hmmm.... what kind of facts would you like? Do you have clean and untouched data? How do you quantify morale? What scale do you use? What are your survey methods?

The census is hiring after you finish your gig with MP.

Posted by Realistic, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 16, 2008 at 9:05 pm

What do you know, Before the period of time now known as The Exodus, the rate of veteran officers leaving the department before retirement was extremely low. This is a fact. Check it out.

During the time the police chief before Goitia was in charge, the rate of resignations of veteran officers going to the sheriffs department or other police forces shot up through the stratosphere. Can you explain this? I was told by several of these veteran officers who got the hell out of Dodge that the department was a shambles because of poor management, cronyism and vindictiveness, and that they were leaving in spite of their original intentions of staying there until retirement. So, What do you know, what DO you know?

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