Anchorage Assembly raises pay for police, fire commanders

Anchorage police patch

The Anchorage Assembly voted to significantly boost pay for senior-level cops and firefighters Tuesday night, a move aimed at fixing a situation where a promotion from a union job in either department means a sharp pay cut.

The vote was 8-3. Assembly members Elvi Gray-Jackson, Dick Traini, John Weddleton, Forrest Dunbar, Pete Petersen, Tim Steele and Bill Evans voted yes, and Assembly members Bill Starr, Amy Demboski and Patrick Flynn voted no.

Some assistant fire chiefs and police captains will see a pay boost totaling between $30,000 and $45,000 — from about $114,000 to $156,000, in one example. Fire battalion chiefs and police lieutenants will generally see pay boosts between $10,000 and $30,000.

Officials with the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the proposal was designed to help close a widening pay gap between union-represented cops and firefighters, whose contracts are negotiated, and their commanders. The administration said the gap, which averages about $20,000, has stifled recruiting for leadership positions from within the departments.

The total cost of the program, which affects 30 positions, will run an extra $840,000 annually, which city manager Mike Abbott said is expected to be absorbed into the police and fire departments’ budgets. The fire department has a $92 million budget, and the police department has about a $100 million budget. Raises won’t extend to the chief and deputy chief positions in either department.

The raises for police commanders and some fire commanders will take effect immediately. Other firefighter raises will happen at the start of next year, in part because the fire department has had trouble coming in on budget in recent years, Abbott said.

Steele echoed other Assembly members who supported the proposal in saying he found the cost “staggering” but necessary.

“It’s reflective of us having our head in the sand for a number of years,” Steele said.

Evans said that in his view, the city had saved millions of dollars in recent years by underpaying non-represented police officers and firefighters.

Starr and Demboski both peppered the administration with pointed questions about the proposal. Demboski — whose husband is an Anchorage fire captain and union member, and she was ruled to not have a conflict — said the Berkowitz administration had not done enough to explore other means of encouraging internal candidates for the jobs.

“I think this is too much too fast,” Demboski said.

Leaders of the Anchorage police and fire unions were divided on the proposal. Gerard Asselin, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Union, said the pay increases “needed to happen.”

But Mike Stumbaugh, the president of International Association of Firefighters Local 1264, said he didn’t understand the timing. He said the union agreed weeks ago to change the staffing model on ambulances on the assumption that money would be saved.

“Six weeks ago we did concessions for ambulances downtown, but there’s $1 million in the budget for raises?” Stumbaugh said. “I’m not sure what to believe.”

He also said he didn’t know how the city could guess on the budget climate for upcoming years with a bleak outlook for the state economy.

Abbott said Tuesday the issue “came to a head” earlier this year when an opening in an Anchorage police lieutenant job yielded no internal candidates. He stressed that the city isn’t asking for more money, but for the police and fire departments to absorb the costs.

In other business: The Assembly extended a public hearing on cellphone tower regulations to the next meeting and set up a work session for June 3.