Meet-and-confer talks have begun between city administrators and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association in the hopes that a new contract can be reached by June, four months before the current one expires and in time for the city’s budget process.
Salaries, overtime pay and comp time top a list of more than a dozen issues that have been placed on the table. Several meetings are scheduled over the next few months in an effort to reach terms. The last contract included modest, annual pay raises for officers.
This is the third time the two sides are negotiating under meet-and-confer, a collective bargaining tool approved by voters in 2006 that gives the union the right to negotiate employment issues with the city manager. The current agreement, reached in March 2013, runs through Sept. 30, but it can be rolled over for a one-year “evergreen period.”
The police cannot receive salary increases during the evergreen period, according to the current contract. Association President Sgt. Rick Van Houten sent a letter to the city manager in November initiating the current round of talks that recently began in earnest.
WE ARE TRULY HOPING TO PRESS FORWARD AT A PACE WHERE WE CAN INCLUDE THIS IN OUR FISCAL 2017 BUDGET. THE CITY HAS NO DESIRE TO STRING THE POA ALONG. WE ARE COMMITTED TO REACHING AN AGREEMENT THAT WORKS FOR BOTH SIDES.
Valerie Washington, Fort Worth assistant city manager
Assistant City Manager Valerie Washington, who is leading the city’s negotiation team, said none of the issues appear to be deal-breakers in reaching a new contract. As a result, the city has not hired an outside negotiator, but it will lean on a consultant for advice if needed, she said.
At this point, Washington said it’s too early to tell how the negotiations might affect the city’s budget. Both sides will be looking at wages and potential changes as to when officers can receive “step” raises in terms of tenure.
The contract covers the department’s nearly 1,600 officers. The department’s fiscal 2016 budget is $229 million, which is more than one-third of the city’s $610.9 million general fund.
WE ALL HAVE A VERY HIGH LEVEL OF TRUST THAT WE’RE GOING TO BRING INTO NEGOTIATIONS. IT’S INCUMBENT ON BOTH SIDES TO FOSTER THAT TRUST EVERY TIME WE MEET.
Sgt. Rick Van Houten, Fort Worth Police Association president
Van Houten said he, too, is confident negotiations can go smoothly. This is the first meet-and-confer under new Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, who joined the department from Allentown, Pa., in October. Fitzgerald and three assistant chiefs are excluded from the contract.
“We all have a very high level of trust that we’re going to bring into negotiations. It’s incumbent on both sides to foster that trust every time we meet,” Van Houten said. “We want this to be completed by midyear. That’s an ambitious goal.”
Beyond salary issues, the union and the city will discuss how to best recruit officers, and changing city policy to make that process easier when hiring out-of-town and out-of-state applicants. For example, the department can’t give civil service exams outside of Fort Worth. Recruiting was addressed in the previous contract talks.
“There are plenty of recruiting opportunities within the state of Texas. We haven’t tapped into all those opportunities,” Washington said.
Recruiting and staffing levels remain top issues for the association, Van Houten said, pointing to expected population growth coming to the city’s far west and north sides in the next several years. And based on studies and formulas sometimes used to determine how many officers a police department needs, Fort Worth could now be considered short by several hundred positions, he said.
Moreover, Fort Worth faces competition for the best officers nationwide. The city needs to have a police employment package that makes it an attractive city to work, he said. It can take up to two years for newly hired recruits to complete training and be on patrol on their own, he said.
“If we’re not planning now for growth, we’re already behind,” Van Houten said.
In addition, the two sides will consider changes to the department’s fitness and wellness programs, promotions and leave policies, among other things.