Cape Girardeau city leaders wrestle pay issues

Monday, December 8, 2008

The questions facing Cape Girardeau city leaders as they try to work around pay issues include where to find money and what numbers to use for comparisons.

City manager Doug Leslie has been meeting with employee groups -- he met with about 40 firefighters Friday in the latest session -- to explain the recent decision to award raises to some members of the police department. With a general freeze on pay increases in place, months of discussions over police pay resulted a 1 percent raise Jan. 1 for officers ranked sergeant and below. Those officers will receive another 1 percent increase July 1 and move a step up the pay grid, an increase of about 2 percent, on the anniversary date of their hiring or most recent promotion.

Almost all city employees, including the police, will receive a $600 one-time payment scheduled for Dec. 26. The payment will not, however, be built into the workers' base pay. The city has canceled raises because of lagging revenue.

Discontent with the city's actions has been expressed most vocally by the Cape Girardeau Firefighters Association. In June 2004, city voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund raises for police and firefighters as well as pay for new equipment and construction. The key measure at that time was a goal of keeping fire and police personnel as close as possible to 97 percent of the pay in a 12-city peer group.

The raise for police, city leaders have said, was recognition that the city was lagging behind that goal. Firefighters contend that they, too, have fallen behind and they deserve the same consideration.

The situation has not been helped by news Leslie received a 4 percent pay increase in September and that Ken Efink, the city Development Services director, was given the additional title of assistant city manager and a 9 percent pay increase in September.

Timing, process concerns

At the beginning of Friday's meeting, fire chief Rick Ennis urged employees not to be confrontational. "I know there is a lot of frustration and flat-out anger," he said. "But whatever the frustration or anger, he is the city manager. Give him the respect he deserves."

Part of the frustration for firefighters is that the city established an ad-hoc committee to conduct an in-depth review of police pay issues without their knowledge. The committee included police chief Carl Kinnison, Sgt. Barry Hovis, an assistant city attorney and the city human resources director.

The pay proposal for officers also included two new perks -- an extra day of personal time to recognize that they average a 42-hour workweek and agreement that officers who live outside city limits may drive their patrol cars home.

On Friday, Leslie apologized for what he termed poor timing -- the police pay increase was announced to department directors about a week after the general announcement to all employees there would be only the $600 payment rather than cost-of-living raises.

"There was no secret, nothing was ever intended to be secret," Leslie said. "I value each and every one of you and the jobs you do. I have said that repeatedly, but maybe I haven't said it enough."

Finding the money

The trade-off between a general pay increase, a police-only plan and the $600 payment was money and where to find it. A general cost-of-living raise would cost the city $170,000 during the last six months of the budget year and $340,000 annually thereafter, and the money would come mainly from the city general fund. The police-only pay increase will cost $15,000 over six months, increasing to $46,500 for the budget year that begins July 1. That money also comes from the city general fund.

The $600 one-time payment will cost the city $230,000, but that money was found by tapping a surplus in the city's self-funded health plan. There are no ongoing costs.

"These are challenging times we are faced with," Mayor Jay Knudtson said. "We can't go out and print money. We don't have the alternate source of revenue to reward them the way we want to reward them."

Comparing peer pay

During the discussions of police pay, the city returned to the list of peer cities compiled by Condrey & Associates, the Atlanta-based consulting firm that studied employee pay in 2003. Obtaining pay figures from 11 of the 12 cities, the police department representatives showed that the $31,357 base pay for beginning police officers was 82.25 percent of the median pay of $38,124. When the city did the calculation, it excluded a city for which no figure was obtained by Condrey and concluded starting officers received 85 percent of a $36,888 median.

The city and the department were much closer on the pay situation for sergeants. The city's calculation of the median starting pay for sergeants came to $45,255 -- $8 higher than the department's figure -- and concluded that Cape Girardeau, with a sergeant's starting pay at $40,143, paid 85 percent of that amount.

One purpose of the 2004 tax measure was to stem turnover and attract sizable applicant pools for fire and police positions, city leaders have said. On Friday, Leslie told the firefighters that turnover had begun creeping up again in the police department and the applicant list had been shrinking.

The purpose of the pay discussions wasn't to pit police against the rest of the city workforce, Hovis said in an interview.

"It is an uncomfortable situation for me as well as other officers to be in," he said. "We are very cognizant of that, and it is not our intent to offend anyone. We appreciate all the jobs they do, and I know this is causing some concern among city employees. It is really tough for me."

Different numbers

To explain why police pay is being raised and firefighter pay is not, the city also calculated whether the starting pay for firefighters was lagging behind the peer cities. Gathering numbers from eight of the 12 other cities, Cape Girardeau leaders concluded that the median pay stands at $30,995, or $362 below the starting pay here.

The firefighters association has also compiled numbers. But the organization has figures for only five of the peer cities and none of the figures agree with the city's amounts. Four are higher than those used by the city and one is lower. The firefighters concluded that the average pay for those five was $34,000 and that starting pay here is 89.3 percent of that amount. The firefighters, however, used a starting pay figure of $30,357, or $1,000 below that used by the city.

Using the median of the five figures provided by the firefighters and the city's official starting pay figure, firefighters are receiving 97.9 percent of their peer pay.

Firefighters union secretary-treasurer Randy Sander, who compiled the figures, said the issues go deeper than just starting pay. There are issues about step increases and time off that the city should address for firefighters the way it did for police, he said.

"It has nothing to do with the police department," he said. "It has to do with how city hall handled them compared to how they handled everyone else. We asked. I specifically more than one time said let's get together, get numbers and start looking at it the same way."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Have a comment?

Log on to semissourian.com

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: