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Police contract delay irks Poulsbo officers

POULSBO — It’s been in the works for over a year and despite taking huge strides towards a much-anticipated conclusion, the City of Poulsbo and the Poulsbo Police Department are still a long way from finding common ground in terms of a new law enforcement contract.

The lengthy process, during which officers have had pay increases frozen, hasn’t been easy for either side. Talks between the two entities stalled just prior to September and city promised that if things did not improve it would be forced to enter arbitration — a threat which the Poulsbo City Council made good on during a Nov. 7 meeting.

Nonetheless, union steward Officer Andy Pate said “a lot of headway” was made in September as Teamsters Local 587 and the city bargaining committee whittled down the list to five final issues. After additional discussion, outstanding demands dropped to just one but one has proven to be enough to put a monkey wrench in the entire works.

The impasse concerns the police officers’ Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) and the fact that the union is seeking 100 percent of the Consumer Price Index for the next three years. The city, however, isn’t budging.

“We made several proposals in our meetings where we moved a little toward what they wanted,” said Pate, noting that the Poulsbo Police Department was willing to make concessions as long as the city agreed to the 100 percent level at the end of the three year contract. “The committee told us that they were mandated by the city council not to accept any offer over 90 percent.”

The 90 percent level marks a 10 percent decrease from COLAs given to Poulsbo’s employees in the past, explained finance director and bargaining committee member Donna Bjorkman. Bjorkman confirmed that 2001 marked the first time that any city employee had COLAs less than 100 percent.

The reason, she explained, is that the finance committee conducted a salary and benefit review for all non-union employees and discovered that Poulsbo was essentially over-compensating its workers.

“The Consumer Price Index is like a basket of goods,” Bjorkman said, noting that during its study the finance committee realized that because the city’s “great medical package” was also included in the CPI, employees were essentially getting the same “goods” twice. “They gave the direction that all non-represented should be placed at 90 percent.”

While non-represented employees had no choice but to accept the city’s terms, the finance director admitted that “there was some resistance” experienced from the union, which backs all public works and administration employees.

Officer Pate said other employees of the city were also unhappy with the 90 percent level and that the because the other union proposal was heading toward non-binding arbitration, they were essentially “bullied” into a contract. Pate explained that because the matter was non-binding, the city had the final say no matter what the outcome of the arbitration. The same does not hold true in the case of binding arbitration, which Poulsbo and the police department officially entered on Nov. 7.

“It’s very costly to go to arbitration,” Officer Pate remarked, noting that he wasn’t sure if the city council fully understood the issue at hand.

In financial terms, the contract for Poulsbo police won’t have a huge budgetary impact — it works out to about $10,000 over the next three years.

The bottom line, he said is that police officers are worried that if they accept the 90 percent level, a precedent will be set and the 100 percent COLA will never again be attained.

Pate added that local officers are frustrated with the way things have unraveled.

“The only answer we’re getting is that everyone else took 90 percent,” he said, adding that he expected the arbitration process to last another six to nine months. “They tried to tell me that we’re in uncertain economic times — when have economic times ever been certain?”

When asked if the negotiations were having a negative impact on local law enforcement, Officer Pate shook his head before stating, “We’re nowhere near that. We’re still totally committed to the community.”

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