News - April 6, 2011

Menlo Park council prepares for police negotiations

by Sandy Brundage

As a preview of coming attractions, Menlo Park city staff released a report on public safety employee compensation in advance of the council meeting on April 12 to set negotiating parameters.

Contracts with the Menlo Park Police Officers' Association and the Menlo Park Police Sergeants' Association expire on June 30, during a time when the public remains focused on overhauling the public employee pension system.

The staff report highlights the history behind negotiations with the police unions. In 2008, the council approved a salary increase to stop "a vicious cycle" of losing officers to other agencies that paid more; at the time Menlo Park had lost 30 of 50 officers. According to the report, the strategy did help staunch the turnover.

But times have changed. "It is hard to accept that working in the physical boundaries of Menlo Park is not highly attractive for a 22 year old with a starting wage of 97,000 per year. If recruits leave, there is a different problem," Henry Riggs, planning commissioner and contributor to the Measure L pension reform initiative campaign, wrote in an email to the council. "We need to abandon the council policy whereby we pay more than other cities for police. At least pay parity, not a guaranteed 20% more."

Councilman Peter Ohtaki shared his concerns about increasing retirement benefits for police officers from 24 to almost 30 percent over the next four years despite the heavy investment losses suffered by CalPERS, the state pension fund. "In other words, the city will need to pay 30 percent above a police officer's salary to CalPERS to fund the '3 percent @50' benefit," he said, and later concluded, "We appreciate the excellent work of our police officers, but in this fiscal environment, all city staff will need to help in balancing the budget."

Advocates for pension reform took issue with the report's claim that comparing public sector salaries and benefits with private sector equivalents — a move some think would encourage cuts in city employee salaries — isn't possible.

According to Menlo Park, databases only make "overly broad comparisons on a national or regional scale." Other obstacles to making those comparisons, as detailed in the staff report, include companies regarding salary information as proprietary, and a lack of local data.

Peter Carpenter, who serves on the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District as well as on the board of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit scientific journal publisher, disagreed. He said the nonprofit uses private salary information as "an integral part of our salary administration."

Annual Reviews contracts with the Hay Group to compare private and public sector salaries using a database that includes an adjustment for the higher cost of living in the Bay Area.

City staff will present the report to the council during its Tuesday night meeting on April 5, which starts at 7 p.m. in council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St.


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