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Oak Harbor police won’t surrender their pay raise

Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace speaks at an October budget workshop.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace speaks at an October budget workshop.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

While all other city workers are either being forced or have voluntarily waived pay raises in 2011, Oak Harbor police officers have decided to stick to their guns and require the city to honor the terms of their existing contract.

That means the cops will be the only city employees to get raises next year.

The decision was made following negotiations with city officials Monday, Nov. 15, when the Oak Harbor Police Association voted to decline the city’s request, which asked union members to waive their contractual 2 percent pay increase. Although members did seriously consider the request, the decision was one-sided, according to Ron Hofkamp, a department detective and president of the association.

“It was not unanimous but it was overwhelming,” he said.

The union’s existing three-year contract was hammered out in 2009. Although Hofkamp said the negotiations were one of the easiest in memory, the terms adopted were viewed by some officers as a concession. Many wanted to remain on a shorter two year contract but agreed to be locked in to a longer contract at the request of city representatives.

“Now all of a sudden they want to do a backstroke,” Hofkamp said. “It was their idea to do a three-year contract.”

To help address the city’s first budget shortfall in years, Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik decided to forego cost-of-living increases for all city employees. The decision, however, had no impact on represented employees, such as the police and fire department unions.

Unlike the police association, the Oak Harbor Firefighters Union is in the process of negotiating the terms of a new contract. However, it got a similar request from city officials, according to union Vice President Mike Buxton. They asked that firefighters voluntarily not ask for raises in 2011.

“We’re going to honor the request,” Buxton said. “We don’t want to cause any problems with the city.”

“We all have to get along,” he said.

While police officers will be the only employees to get raises next year, the department may not be off the hook. In statements made to the City Council Tuesday evening, Nov. 16, Oak Harbor Finance Director Doug Merriman said the approximately $70,000 the police raises are worth will be found in the general fund, a pot of money that pays for public services such as police.

“It could mean we go to the police budget itself,” Merriman said.

No decisions about where the money will come from have been made yet, although the city’s biennium budget was adopted Tuesday evening. The council approved a general fund budget of $14.33 million for 2011 and $14.28 for 2012. That compares to the $15.66 million adopted for 2009 and the $16 million for 2010.

City Council members did not seem particularly perturbed that police officers would be getting raises next year when no other city employee would. City Councilman Jim Palmer said it was “really their call."

Oak Harbor resident Dave Harrington was the sole member of the pubic to speak at Tuesday’s meeting. He argued that city spending needs to get under control and presented several ideas on how the budget could be reduced.

Police Chief Rick Wallace said he did not lament the fact that raises for his officers could mean a reduction to his department’s budget. In fact, he was the one who suggested the possibility to the mayor, City Administrator Paul Schmidt and Merriman. He said he doesn’t begrudge his officers for holding the city to the terms of the contract, but if they are the only city employees to get raises it’s only fair that it come out of the police budget.

“It shouldn’t penalize other departments,” Wallace said.

It’s too soon to know exactly where the money will come from, but if the entire $70,000 does come out of the police budget, Wallace said it would likely be made up of many small line items. Merriman said Thursday morning that he couldn’t comment on where the money may come from but that he, the mayor and Schmidt will begin looking for it and that a decision will likely be made soon.

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