Fairbanks police union dispute enters second year

FAIRBANKS — An end to the impasse between the city of Fairbanks and police seems unlikely as wages, health care and overtime are all testy topics.

The contract dispute between Fairbanks and the union representing police and dispatch personnel has entered its second year.

The last contract with the Public Safety Employees Association expired Jan. 1, 2013. Since a successor agreement has not been reached, union members have been operating under the previous contract.

The union filed an unfair labor practice lawsuit against Fairbanks last November, accusing the city of “refusal to bargain in good faith.” PSEA employees are not allowed to strike.

Alaska Labor Relations Agency has assigned a hearing officer to the case to determine if there was probable cause for a violation. The officer will start on the case Monday, Labor Relations Administrator Mark Torgerson said. If the officer finds probable cause and fails to mediate a settlement, a board panel from the agency will hear the case.

The lawsuit stems from a succession of actions taken by the Fairbanks City Council between August and November.

First, Fairbanks City Council ratified a collective bargaining agreement with PSEA. Then, Councilman Jim Matherly requested reconsideration on the contract, but his request wasn’t timely. At the next meeting, the council voted to suspend its rules — which required a five-vote super majority — then voted to reconsider the contract. When the contract came up for reconsideration, the council unanimously rejected it.

In early January, the union rejected a contract proposal from Fairbanks. PSEA President Ron Dupee said the city offered a 4 percent increase to wages or benefits — without retroactive pay — and elimination of double pay, which occurs in some circumstances when officers are forced to work overtime.

PSEA Executive Director Jake Metcalfe contends a contract was negotiated, agreed upon and the city should be bound it. “They wanted to renegotiate, but we’re done negotiating,” Metcalfe said.

Compared to other departments in the state, Dupee said Fairbanks Police Department is “bottom of the row” when it comes to health care and “toward the bottom in wages.”

Councilman Jerry Cleworth disputes Dupee. Cleworth said FPD is “absolutely along the lines” of what comparable departments make.

The starting wage for an officer just out of the academy is $29.24 per hour. Monthly health care contributions are $670 for employees and $1,040 for the city.

Critics contend Fairbanks Police Department members are already sufficiently compensated. Once overtime and benefits are added in, almost 80 percent of the police department’s 58 employees grossed more than $100,000 in 2014.

The highest paid employee, with benefits, earned $184,319. Of that, almost $40,000 was overtime pay and $44,571 was benefits.

“He gave up a substantial part of his life to do work for the city of Fairbanks,” Metcalfe said of the large overtime duty.

Overtime is seniority based, so the people earning the highest wages have the option to work the most overtime.

Dupee said wages and benefits create big problems with recruitment and retention. According to Dupee, the department has three open officer positions, about six officers will be eligible to retire in the next eight months and all four lieutenants are eligible to retire.

Proponents of wage and benefit increases believe the result would be higher recruitment and retention, and in turn less overtime.

Recruitment and retention are equally problematic at emergency dispatch, where low staffing has meant extraordinary overtime. In 2014, the highest paid dispatcher earned almost as much in overtime as salary, together totaling $127,000. With benefits, that rose to $170,000.

Chief of Staff Jim Williams said dispatch is down to three vacancies, reducing forced overtime. “The community really depends on these folks, and we’ve got to take care of them,” Williams said.

Richard Sweet joined FPD in 2012 after 26 years in the army. Sweet said thanks to his Army retirement, he isn’t largely impacted by department wages. What concerns Sweet is the department’s ability to grow and advance. As earnings decrease the potential for police corruption increases and “you’re gonna start losing the quality of officers you want,” Sweet said.

According to Sweet, pay “has to be brought up to a standard of living that’s comparable to what you do. It can’t be judged on ‘everybody’s in the same basket.’”

Four unions represent city workers. Negotiations are ongoing with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which Williams described as “amicable.”

The current contract with Fairbanks Firefighters Union expires in May, and negotiations are “kicking off,” Williams said. AFL-CIO is in the third and final year of their contract.

Operating without a successor agreement is not new for PSEA. Starting in the early 1990s, PSEA employees went almost a decade without a successor agreement, which means almost a decade without a pay raise. The union also operated without a successor agreement for almost three years starting in 2009.

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510.