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The price of protection

NORTH LIBERTY — As the population of North Liberty has continued to grow, so too has the size of the police department. What hasn’t grown, according to the officers, are their paychecks.
But, with a new union labor agreement, the officers will see their pay increase to levels comparable with their law enforcement brothers and sisters in the Corridor.
The contract, a first for North Liberty, has been several years in the making and involved organizing with a labor union (Public Professional and Maintenance Employees, Local 2003), utilizing the representation of Joe Rasmussen from Solon (Business Representative for PPME) and going through mediation and arbitration.
The agreement was reached in April and goes into effect July 1.
The dispute over wages can be traced back to 2007, when the city hired the consulting firm of Austin-Peters to develop a compensation system. What resulted was a 16-step, multi-pay-grade program.
“The pay scale seemed fair and consistent with comparable cities,” said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar. Among the issues officers had with the package was the concept of merit pay based on points earned during annual performance reviews with Chief Jim Warkentin. In addition, pay was still below other Corridor law enforcement agencies, and presented in an unusual manner compared to the other agencies. The program was followed for one year, but in 2008, the city felt it was too expensive to give raises other than a modest cost of living adjustment, Rasmussen said.
“The city was not following through on its promises,” Rasmussen said, and this was the instigator for the officers’ desire to organize. With starting wages $4-$5 an hour less than other agencies, Rasmussen said the officers were “badly underpaid.” The average pay for a North Liberty Police Officer is $18.45 an hour, compared to the starting wage of the Iowa City Police Department, which is $20.11, and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office starting wage of $19.87 per hour.
“It was a little surprising,” Heiar said of the officers’ desire to organize. “But, based on other area departments organizing, it was not a total shock.” Heiar said he feels the city has done a good job of treating its employees well. “It was disappointing, but looking at it from their side, it’s only human nature to want what is best for themselves. You can’t argue with that.”
Rasmussen also pointed out North Liberty had the potential of becoming what he called a “training ground,” where a new officer could join the department, be trained (at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy) and certified; then, after gaining experience, move on to another law enforcement agency with better pay. He said two officers resigned in November 2009 in search of higher salaries.
Heiar discounted Rasmussen’s notion saying the department has had no trouble keeping officers. The department, founded 12 years, ago is a young department; besides Chief Warkentin and Lt. Diane Venenga, the longest-tenured officer has served 10 years. While Heiar confirmed that two officers left, he discounted the assertion they left for a better deal. Heiar also countered the training ground argument, noting most NLPD officers are already certified law enforcement officers at the time of hire. When a new officer is hired and needs certification, the department pays for him or her to attend the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, but the officer signs a contract to serve four years with the city, or pay back the academy costs. Heiar also said over 40 applications were received for the last opening, and even if the city looked only at certified officers, there would be plenty to choose from.
The officers contacted PPME in August 2009, and the union filed a certification petition. PPME covers over 80 bargaining units across the state of Iowa involving city, county and state employees. The union also represents the Sheriff’s Offices in Linn and Johnson County.
Soon after, Rasmussen met with Heiar, Warkentin, and the City Attorney to discuss bargaining procedures. The union was voted in by the rank and file officers in November 2009 and was certified by the Public Employees Retirement Board (PERB).
In early December, PPME made a formal request to meet with the city and begin the bargaining process. But, after not receiving any response, the union turned to the PERB for help on Dec. 30, 2009.
“The whole process got started late,” Heiar said, noting it was the first time the city had dealt with labor negotiations. “We knew it was going to take some time to get it right. There was no delay.”
However, there were a lot of procedural steps that slowed the process considerably.
In January 2010, the city contracted with Ray and Associates to represent the city in the bargaining process and opening proposals were exchanged in March. Negotiation sessions were conducted in April 2010 without an agreement being reached. An attempt at mediation on May 13, 2010, went nowhere and led the union to request “fact-finding,” to which the city filed an objection with the PERB. In June, the PERB issued their decision sustaining the city’s objection, which effectively meant that arbitration was not possible.
On July 1, 2010, all city employees except the police officers received raises. Rasmussen said the officers were told they could sign the city’s contract, or give up any wage increase. The officers rejected the city’s offer and in September, PPME filed a “prohibited practice complaint” against Mayor Tom Salm and the City Council, alleging that the city was retaliating against the officers for organizing, and was punishing them by refusing them the same wage increases other city employees had received.
Heiar said the wage increase was denied not from retaliation, but due to the negotiations in progress at the time.
“We were not allowed to make wage adjustments during negotiations. History will show we didn’t fight the union,” Heiar said. “We filed the organizing papers quickly. We started negotiations even before we were required to. We wanted to get this taken care of quickly so we could focus on serving the people of North Liberty.”
Both sides went back to the bargaining table, but were getting nowhere as contract proposals were exchanged in October and November. The city filed a prohibited practice complaint of their own on November 30, 2010, against the union for proposing a settlement of the union’s complaint, to the Mayor and Council.
A two-hour mediation session on January 17, 2011, led to tentative agreements recognizing the NLPD’s bargaining unit, its deduction of dues and establishing a grievance procedure. However, that is as far as agreements went, leading the union to file for arbitration.
Arbitrator Lon Moeller of Iowa City was assigned the case.
Moeller asked both parties to develop a list of comparable departments on which to base their wage proposals. The union’s choices included law enforcement agencies in the corridor, which Rasmussen says is a labor market available to the NLPD officers. The union also argued that as the second-fastest growing city in Iowa, the city’s population is continually increasing. Also, the union pointed to the city’s desire for 24/7 police coverage without having to contract with the Johnson County Sheriff.
The city looked at communities similar to North Liberty in demographics, population size, growth, neighboring population areas and the size of their police departments.
Arbitrator Moeller chose the Coralville, Hiawatha, Iowa City, Marion and Mt. Vernon police departments as well as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office for the comparison group to be used as a basis for arbitration.
Heiar said he was disappointed Moeller had chosen the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, pointing to significant differences in a county-wide operation versus the NLPD.
Moeller’s decision, leading to binding arbitration, stated “the union’s proposed wage schedule and step movement are more in line with the comparables than is the city’s.” Moeller also stated “the union’s offer on the wages impasse items is the most reasonable.” The city and the union had 13 issues up for arbitration. Moeller awarded eight to the union, five to the city.
The end result is that some officers will see a substantial increase in pay based on their years of service. All officers were to receive a payment by May 13 to compensate for increases not previously received. On July 1, the starting wage will be $20.09 per hour. However, a new officer lacking certification will start at 80 percent for the first six months, 90 percent for the second. A newly hired and already certified officer will receive 90 percent for the first six months. In addition, the average pay for the department increases to $20.58 per hour.
No changes were made to the officers’ health, vision or dental plans. A short-term disability program was removed and a minor change was made in their long-term disability. Previously, the city paid for 85 percent of the long-term disability insurance. Under the new agreement, the city picks up 100 percent of the cost.
Chief Warkentin and his command staff (Lt. Venenga and two sergeants) are not included in the bargaining unit, which consists of 11 eligible officers (nine fulltime and two part-time/as-needed). An additional officer is due to start in September.
Rasmussen said that while public sector unions have been in the spotlight in past months, being “bashed” as he said, by politicians and others, the men and women he represents “all take their jobs seriously.”
And with 25 years of labor representation, Rasmussen has seen a lot.
“I used to have department heads who recognized dedication, who advocated for their employees.” Now he laments not seeing it as much. “Maybe it’s not ‘politically correct’ to do so now.”
In Iowa, unlike in other states, public employees are prohibited by law from going on strike, and are unable to collectively bargain for retirement benefits as those are determined by the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System (IPERS) and non-negotiable.
“Public safety is a thankless profession at times,” Heiar said.
Rasmussen also noted even though a contract is in-place, there is still much work to do.
The arbitrated contract is only good for one year. Both sides will return to the table in August to work on a multi-year contract.
For now, while Rasmussen agrees there is no such thing as “the perfect contract,” he feels an agreement has been reached which is fair to the taxpayer and the officers.
“We’re not holding any grudges,” Heiar said. “We’re moving forward and putting the emphasis on serving the people of North Liberty.”