ITHACA, N.Y. – The Police Benevolent Association last signed a contract with the City of Ithaca in 2008. It has been six years since that contract expired, and still the city and union have been unable to reach a new agreement. As the city prepares its 2019 budget, conflict has escalated between the two parties.
The IPBA has accused the city of thwarting contract negotiations to avoid giving police officers pay raises.
“The City’s goal has been clear – despite its financial ability to do so, it has been evident that their intent is to prevent IPBA members from receiving fair and reasonable compensation for the hard work they perform and danger they face on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis,” IPBA President Eric Doane wrote in a press release.
On the other side, the city has accused the union of trying to bully its way into a contract that is beyond the city’s means.
“(The PBA has) made unreasonable demands on the City and its taxpayers of a sort not reflected in any of the City’s other labor contracts… This aggression and stonewalling by PBA leadership has undermined the interests of the officers they represent,” reads a statement posted by Mayor Svante Myrick on Facebook.
Understanding police pay
Police pay is at the heart of the dispute. Both sides have cited figures about officer salaries, overtime and benefits in their campaigns. To cut through the confusion, here’s a rundown of where police pay stands.
Salaries have been stagnant for the Ithaca Police Department since 2011, the last year covered by the 2008-2011 PBA contract. A first-year officer joining the department in 2011 would have earned the same salary as a first-year officer joining the department today: $44,891.
Nevertheless, many officers have gotten salary raises since 2011 in keeping with the contract’s terms. The last contract agreed to by the city and the IPBA sets fixed salary increases across an officer’s first four years of work.
A first-year officer who joined the department in 2011 and continued working would now earn $70,222 in base pay. That increase reflects fixed yearly raises as an officer moves from step one to step four of the salary schedule.
Sergeants are also paid on a step-based schedule, and promotion to lieutenant comes with a salary boost as well. In 2018, the city approved funding for 52 police officers, 10 sergeants and four lieutenants.
Salary figures are not the same as an officer’s total pay as many officers make significant overtime earnings. Doane said via phone that Ithaca officers work about 500 overtime hours per year, by his estimate. The city budgeted $550,000 for police overtime pay in 2018.
Including overtime, median pay for officers in 2018 was about $93,000. Both Doane and Myrick said this number accurately reflects median pay for sworn officers represented by the PBA, including officers, sergeants and lieutenants. Excluding the chief and deputy chiefs, half of Ithaca officers earn more than $93,000, while half earn less.
Doane said the $93,000 median reflects excessive demand for overtime work. Median pay is much higher than base salary for the department’s 55 unranked officers, he said, because they work so many overtime hours.
Doane said the union wants higher staffing levels so officers can work fewer overtime hours. The department “desperately needs more people … officers are sick of running short on the roads, of doing two or three different duties. We’re getting run ragged,” he said.
Meanwhile, Myrick, reached by phone Thursday, stressed that the $93,000 median reflects pay, not total compensation. To estimate total compensation, he said he would add $24,000 in city contributions to health insurance and $15,000 in contributions to pension accounts.
Myrick said Ithaca’s officers are “the best compensated officers for a city our size for a long, long way around.” He said 2018 is the first year they were not the city’s highest paid employees; they were out-earned by firefighters.
The city and union are bound by a confidentiality agreement, so neither side can make public their exact offers or demands.
Myrick characterized raises offered by the city as “significant” and said they would restore police officers’ status as the highest-paid city employees.
Doane characterized union demands as “reasonable” and said a committee “ran the numbers to make sure it’s something the city can afford.”
Funding the feud
The IPBA and the city have accused each other of squandering money on the contract fight.
“The community should be aware that the City has spent over $250,000 of taxpayers’ funds on a legal safari, led by privately retained counsel, to fight our contract,” the press release from Doane reads.
Doane said by phone, “It’s very frustrating when I see elected officials spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on frivolous legal action … I’m extremely frustrated for the taxpayers.”
Myrick agreed that $250,000 sounds like a reasonable estimate of fees the city has paid to retain an attorney to oversee labor contracts since 2012. He said these retainer fees would have been paid whether or not the city was at odds with the IPBA, however.
“That’s money we would spend whether we were fighting them or not,” Myrick said.
Myrick questioned how much money the union had spent on their own legal fees and public relations campaign. Doane explained that the IPBA pays a fee to retain legal services through the New York State Union of Police Associations. The union would pay those fees whether or not they were fighting the city.
The union’s public relations campaign, Doane said, has come at a significant expense. “We felt we had to (hire a PR firm) to get our message out, to help the public understand what’s going on,” he said.
Though both sides said they are eager to reach a deal, the city and union remain at loggerheads.
In the meantime, those interested in learning more about public employee salaries can explore local payrolls at SeeThroughNY. The database includes annual pay records compiled from government sources.