Cape Girardeau Police Officers Association opposing extension of road tax

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Cape Girardeau Police Officers Association opposes extending the city's sales tax for roads because officers feel that promises about pay haven't been kept, the president of the association, Bill Bohnert, said Thursday.

The association began running ads Sunday in the Southeast Missourian with a simple message against the tax extension on the Aug. 3 ballot. The ad does not give a reason for the opposition.

The ads are running now in part to influence the city budget, which is being written now for the year that will begin July 1, Bohnert said. But the bigger message, he said, is that officers feel they have not received the pay increases promised when a tax to support fire and police operations was approved in 2004 and they do not trust city promises now.

"We have been told over the years every time we go out and help them pass a tax that it is going to free up money to give us a pay raise, and that never happens," Bohnert said. "The officers feel slighted."

The ad campaign began with little advance warning to city leaders. City manager Scott Meyer said he was alerted to the first ad last Friday by police chief Carl Kinnison. If the tax is defeated, Meyer said, it will put pressure on city general fund revenue that has been struggling to keep up with inflation in recent years.

"I would be dishonest to say I wasn't a little disappointed," Meyer said. "We had been out and tried to explain the situation we are in to employees. We had begun to articulate what a comprehensive, sustainable compensation plan would be and had begun that work."

The tax on the Aug. 3 ballot is known as the Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF. First approved in 1995, the half-cent sales tax has been extended twice, the last time in 2005 with 82 percent of voters approving it.

The tax would raise about $21 million over five years. About $13 million is dedicated to specific road projects, such as widening Bloomfield Road, also known as County Road 205, and rebuilding West End Boulevard south of Highway 74. The remainder pays for street repairs and asphalt overlays, and it includes a contingency fund to cover extra costs.

The officers association was ready to oppose the sales tax for parks and storm-water projects in April 2008 but was convinced to hold back by then-city manager Doug Leslie and then-Mayor Jay Knudtson, Bohnert said.

As city revenue growth stalled because of the recession in 2008, Leslie canceled raises for most city employees. Instead, workers were given a $600 lump-sum payment that was not included in their base pay.

At the same time, Leslie was approving a pay increase for officers at the rank of sergeant and below of 1 percent on Jan. 1, 2009, with another 1 percent raise on July 1, 2009. In addition, officers were given a step increase on the pay scale, which resulted in about a 2 percent pay increase.

On the officers' side, the issue is whether they are being paid what they were promised in 2004, Bohnert said. Officers were told the public safety tax would provide them with pay equal to 97 percent of officers in comparable cities.

"We are still 12 to 26 percent under what comparables get, and this is what we have been fighting for for six years," Bohnert said.

But for Meyer, the issue is whether the city can even afford its current payroll. The total cost of pay and benefits has increase 29.2 percent in six years, he said, led by a 46.67 percent increase in the cost of benefits such as pensions and health insurance.

In the same period, he said, inflation has been 14.3 percent, while city revenue has grown slowly or not at all. If general fund sales tax receipts had kept up with inflation, he said, the city would receive $9.3 million annually from that tax. Instead, revenue this year will be about $8.75 million.

"Our current approach to compensation is not sustainable," Meyer said.

The answer will be to eliminate jobs if possible and look for any other opportunity to keep costs down, he said.

The city is working on a sustainable compensation plan but that will take about a year, Meyer said.

While he said the city will not be pressured, Meyer said he doesn't want officers to feel they are being disregarded.

"I certainly respect the hard work and public service of our men in blue and they do put their lives on the line, and I don't want anybody to think they are not appreciated," he said.

Mayor Harry Rediger echoed those sentiments but wonders if officers have thought about their stance thoroughly.

"I don't know where it is coming from, but it was a surprise to me that they would oppose that issue since they are really a part of our entire city staff team," Rediger said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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