SAN DIEGO — San Diego and its police officers labor union announced on Friday a tentative agreement for compensation increases that aim to help reverse recent struggles with recruiting new officers and retaining existing staff.
The five-year pact doesn’t include salary hikes until July 2018, but most officers would see large jumps in their take-home pay starting this July because the $92 million deal includes sharp increases in benefits for veteran employees.
Those include thousands in higher stipends for uniforms, additional holiday pay and lower health insurance contributions.
“We’ve had a real crisis when it comes to recruiting and retaining some of our best and brightest police officers,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said at a Friday morning press conference in City Heights announcing the deal. “That ends today.”
City officials said the deal increases compensation without violating Proposition B, a 2012 ballot measure that froze pensionable pay until 2018.
The deal’s salary increases, 3.3 percent in both July 2018 and July 2019, would come after the freeze is lifted. They would be the first across-the-board raises for a group of city workers in many years.
The raises would boost the pensions of police officers, but they wouldn’t be large enough to increase the city’s long-term pension liability, officials said.
City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, called the deal a “miracle” for making the city’s police compensation competitive without creating pension problems.
“It’s more than just a sound bite,” she said. “We’re on our way to having a stronger Police Department and officers who plan on staying here for their careers.”
The deal, which must be approved by union members next week and by the council after that, was praised for targeting veterans with the increased benefits, not providing them to all officers.
The majority of the additional benefits would go to officers with at least eight years of experience because that’s the career stage when many have been leaving San Diego for other departments with higher pay, city officials said.
“The longer you stay with us, the more you’re rewarded for staying with us with extra compensation that will match our competitors,” said Sgt. Jeff Jordon, vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Association.
The deal comes after an independent survey last fall showed San Diego police officers are at or near the bottom of the pay scale when compared to their counterparts in 18 other large cities and counties in California.
In both base pay and total compensation including benefits, San Diego officers receive roughly 20 percent less than the average for officers at the other law enforcement agencies surveyed.
Jordon said the proposed increases would move San Diego closer to the midpoint of those agencies and catch it up with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which has been blamed for poaching many city officers.
More importantly, he said, the deal targets employees most likely to leave the department, where recruitment and retention problems have create a large gap between the number of officers on staff and the number funded by the city budget — 1,834 versus 2,013 as of Friday.
“It’s about being competitive step for step over the course of an officer’s career,” Jordon said. “We found that we were competitive in the early years, but not as we progress on. So the targeted monies are for people beyond that seven- or eight-year mark where we begin to see separation.”
He said about 65 percent of the department’s officers have eight years of experience or more.
Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the new deal would bring stability to the department by reducing the number of officers leaving for other agencies.
She said 162 officers left during the fiscal year that ended last July, including at least 17 who left for other agencies. And 87 have left during the seven months of this fiscal year, including at least 16 who switched agencies.
Those numbers might be higher, but departing officers aren’t required to say why they are leaving and many don’t, Zimmerman said. She couldn’t immediately provide statistics on how many of those leaving simply retired.
Some critics of calls for higher pay for San Diego police, including the right-leaning government watchdog group Transparent California, say the department’s rate of attrition has been distorted.
Jordon called a recent Transparent California study flawed and said the only way to fix the attrition problem is with the better compensation included in the proposed contract.
Union president Brian Marvel said the new proposal would help.
“We believe it’s a corrective measure and the department can go out and start pitching it to recruit officers, and maybe even bring back officers who left,” Marvel said. “But time will tell. I don’t want to say it’s going to be the end-all, be-all.”
Councilman Scott Sherman expressed more confidence.
“Quite frankly, now I think we have an opportunity to start trying to lure people to the San Diego police force from other departments,” he said.
The salary hikes in 2018 and 2019 wouldn’t increase pension liability because the city’s pension system calculates yearly 3.3 percent raises into each employee’s projected benefit, Jordon said, explaining that’s why raises of that size were chosen.
Of the $92 million that the deal would cost the city, only $17 million would be spent on the salary increases in 2018 and 2019.
More than $45 million would be spent on lower health care contributions and what the department calls flexible benefits, with $37 million of that money reserved for officers with at least eight years of experience.
Another $11 million would cover increases in uniform stipends for officers with at least eight years. And $16 million would cover additional pay for working holiday shifts.
The remainder would pay for an equipment incentive for new recruits and bonuses for officers who work on helicopters.
Because the union’s current contract isn’t set to expire until 2018, the deal could be characterized as a two-year extension of that deal with extra benefits added during the first three years.
The costs of the deal go steadily up, from $11.1 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 to $25.2 million in fiscal 2020.
About $30 million of the $92 million in new compensation is included in the existing deal, so the proposed pact includes only $62 million in new city spending.