Almanac

News - May 22, 2013

Atherton police contract issues open to public scrutiny

by Renee Batti

Should the town of Atherton consider outsourcing its police department? If not, how much should the town be willing to pay to keep residents safe, properties secure, and police officers feeling fairly compensated?

Those were questions a handful of residents addressed when the City Council met on May 15 and asked the public to comment on what they think should be considered as contract talks with the police union get under way this month.

The contract talks promise to be contentious, with the police union, the Atherton Police Officers' Association (APOA), opening the public debate with mailers sent to residents during election season last year and in early spring. The mailers warned residents of a potential exodus of officers if the town demands compensation cuts similar to those recently imposed on non-represented employees, including the police chief and city manager.

Those cuts included caps on health and dental plans, caps on vacation and sick-leave accrual, and a new requirement that employees pay their own contributions to the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS). (The town will continue paying the employer costs CalPERS charges all public agencies.)

The mailers also referred to potential moves by the council to outsource police services — an action current council members have said they have no interest in taking.

Only six residents commented during the May 15 session: Three stood in firm support of maintaining a local police force, with competitive salaries that will prevent officers from jumping ship and finding better-paying jobs. Among the three were former councilman Malcolm Dudley and Joe Lewis, Mayor Elizabeth Lewis' husband.

Resident Steven Goldby told the council that the police department is one of the reasons "this community's property values are so high and ... why we feel the security we do."

Residents Jim Massey and Sandy Crittenden urged the council to investigate what other agencies, such as the county Sheriff's Office or the Menlo Park police department, would charge to provide police services to Atherton. Police compensation is "the largest single item in the budget," Mr. Massey said, adding that he believed the command structure in the department is top-heavy.

Resident John Ruggeiro, who retired from the San Francisco police department after many years in command positions, voiced concern over escalating costs related to retirement and other benefits. He said that police officers in San Francisco, where his son now works, pay 10.5 percent of their salaries into their retirement funds.

"I'm not interested in outsourcing (police services)," he said. "I'm interested that they pay their share" of retirement costs.

Atherton has been one of the few jurisdictions in recent years to pay the entire employees' portion of retirement costs in addition to the costs billed to the town. Under a resolution passed by the council in January, unrepresented employees will begin paying their own portion in July.

Resident Peter Carpenter, who had encouraged the town to hold the hearing, modeled on the recent hearing before the Menlo Park City Council, was out of town that night, but sent the council an email stating that the town "is already paying far more per capita for police services than Woodside, Portola Valley, Palo Alto or Menlo Park."

He noted that the town's CalPERS obligations "will rise significantly in the next five years, and that will be exacerbated by any increases in the base salary levels." If the APOA is unwilling to make "significant concessions," he said, the town should begin talks with another police agency regarding contracting out all or most of Atherton's police services.

No one from the police union spoke at the meeting. The police contract expires Sept. 30, and talks began this month to set guidelines for negotiations, City Manager George Rodericks said.

Mr. Rodericks and staff prepared an eight-page report detailing current compensation and staffing levels of the police department, as well as of non-emergency employees. The report shows that 87.5 percent of the town's personnel costs go toward police department compensation. The high figure is accounted for, in part, by the fact that the police department has 25 employees; there are only nine non-emergency employees.

With the town's CalPERS payments dropping because of the recent decision to shift unrepresented employees' share of costs to the employees, the town is still facing escalating costs, according to the report. "CalPERS has advised that beginning in 2015, they will begin phasing in a five-year increase to employer rates in order to address the funding gaps within plans," the report says.

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