Almanac

Viewpoint - May 22, 2013

Editorial: Atherton faces big decision on police costs

Although expectations were high, not much was said at last week's only opportunity for public comment prior to the start of what promises to be a series of tough labor talks between Atherton and its police union. The largely calm discussion did not include remarks by anyone from the police union, which has sent mailers to residents warning that the town could lose officers if it demands compensation cuts similar to those recently imposed on non-represented employees, including the police chief and city manager.

Under the current contract, a typical rank-and-file sworn Atherton police officer receives some $125,000 a year in salary and benefits, meaning that even a small percentage increase can amount to serious money.

And records show that Atherton spends more than half its total annual budget paying for police services, with officers who often perform mundane tasks like checking on residents' homes while they are on vacation or stopping suspicious people who might venture into the town.

And even if the council follows its recent action of making significant compensation cuts for employees not represented by the Atherton Police Officers Association (APOA), a parcel tax that helps fund the police department — 60 percent of its revenue goes directly to police services —is up for renewal next year. Without it, the town would face a budget crunch even if police officers don't receive a compensation increase.

There are factors complicating the council's negotiations. For example, the APOA's recent letter to all residents was similar in tone to mailers sent during the council campaign last year. At that time, the APOA played an active role in support of incumbent Elizabeth Lewis and candidate Cary Weist. Both candidates won convincing victories in a race that was complicated by a vote on whether to build a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park. The police union also got public support last week when now-Mayor Lewis' husband, Joe Lewis, spoke in favor of maintaining a local, well-funded police force.

Others who testified urged the council to seek out comparable costs if the county Sheriff's Office or Menlo Park were to provide police protection in Atherton. And Peter Carpenter, a longtime advocate of seriously considering outsourcing, said by email that Atherton's cost per capita for police services is far higher than in Woodside, Portola Valley, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

With an unfunded liability for police pensions and the prospect that CalPERS, the state retirement agency, plans to raise its rates "significantly" in the next five years, any increase in salary levels will be difficult to fund.

But Atherton, like many other Peninsula communities, is faced with pressure to equal, match or exceed what other jurisdictions are paying police officers. It is a process that has driven up police costs to levels that far exceed annual compensation of $100,000 a year, and with the present retirement package — "3 at 50," meaning that officers can retire at 90 percent of their highest pay after 30 years of service — there are plenty of reasons to put the brakes on adding costs for police services now.

We hope that Mayor Lewis and her colleagues have the courage to approve a package for the APOA that is similar to the reductions imposed on non-represented employees. We doubt if doing so would cause a mass exodus from the department, where officers enjoy relatively easy duty for pay that is, by terms of their contract, at the 70th percentile of many Bay Area police forces, including much busier departments nearby. We also hope that the APOA's involvement in the election does not influence the outcome of negotiations, which would send the wrong message to Atherton residents that police unions can buy influence with campaign support.

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