Of course there is a need to offer competitive salary packages, but at some point, the wage escalation must stop or we will have our police force being paid more than the governor — and retiring at age 50 with 90 percent of their pay for life.
This is not to say that our police men and women (and our firefighters, who work for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and are eligible for similar benefits) do not deserve good wages for the very dangerous jobs that they do. But the spiraling cost of these wage contracts for Menlo Park and other Peninsula cities could soon reach crisis proportions.
The most recent dustup in Menlo Park was the City Council's decision, made in executive session as are all wage agreements, to crank up the base pay for eight sergeant positions (one is unfilled) from $107,086 a year to $131,452 by 2011 — a 30 percent increase in just two and a half years. The deal was made public Thursday, Jan. 8, but the council approved it at its Jan. 13 meeting before the public had adequate time to comment.
Except for Councilman John Boyle, who was opposed, the council strongly defended the pay raise, which boosts the sergeants' salaries considerably higher than the average benchmark of 14 similar-sized Peninsula cities. City Manager Glen Rojas said the sergeants' deal was based in large part on the 36-month contract signed last year with the rank-and-file officers for a 25.7 percent increase by 2011, which the council approved on a 5-0 vote. Sergeants have traditionally enjoyed a 20 percent differential over line officers — and were due the 30 percent raise, Mr. Rojas and other city officials said.
Besides the quick turnaround of the sergeants' contract, the public was upset at giving a 30 percent increase over 30 months, when so many local residents are losing their jobs or working for reduced wages or hours. Even though the council felt obligated to push through this increase, the city should at least have delayed approval long enough to explain its side of the story, and to give the public more opportunity to comment.
And we find Mayor Heyward Robinson's initial reaction to a suggestion by fire district board member Peter Carpenter that the city post proposed pay increases for 15 days prior to a final vote totally inappropriate.
"If you just announced it two weeks earlier, that gives people two weeks to send nasty e-mails, get a hot and heavy debate going, et cetera, et cetera," the mayor said. "If we throw it out a couple of weeks early, we'd create a huge amount of excitement over it."
If Mayor Robinson is saying that he does not want to give residents — his constituents and local taxpayers — an opportunity to review and comment on a major expenditure of city funds, is he truly supportive of open and transparent government?
Rather than rush final approval of this contract, the mayor could have used an additional two weeks to educate residents about the issue and brainstorm ways to get the city off this merry-go-round of bidding up the cost of police services.
In prior years, The Almanac has reported on the high cost to cities and special districts when police and fire personnel retire with 90 percent of pay for life at age 50, after 30 years service. As more and more officers qualify for these pensions, the city will be paying out more and more in retirement benefits, especially in years when PERS, the state retirement system, is struggling — as it is now.
In the case of the both police contracts, the city settled on an increase substantially above the average of the cities in the comparison group. By doing so, the city continues to escalate these pay hikes, often beyond normal cost of living increases.
Clearly, Menlo Park alone cannot stop the tendency on the Peninsula and elsewhere to keep pay raises high to simply retain police officers and stop them from defecting to nearby cities. But we believe that all the cities in the comparison group should search for a way, perhaps through a county-wide joint powers agency or in the Legislature, to stop the bidding war for police services.