At Albuquerque City Hall, Bipartisan Support Grows For Proposal To Settle Police Contract

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Bipartisan support is growing at City Hall for a proposal aimed at settling two painful contract disputes with Albuquerque’s police union — one centering on the failure to provide raises five years ago, the other on raises now.

Three councilors introduced legislation Monday that would set aside up to $5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the police union and about $2.5 million for new pay raises.

The union litigation began after the city, amid the Great Recession, refused to provide raises as called for in a contract in place at the time. Instead, the city cut officers’ pay, along with most other employees’, to help balance the budget.

Refusal to honor the contract — which had been agreed to by a prior administration and council in better economic times — contributed to a combative relationship between Mayor Richard Berry and the police union.

The union and city have been negotiating for months with no success. The union membership rejected a recent contract proposal that sought to offer about $1.8 million in pay raises.

The legislation introduced Monday — by Democrats Ken Sanchez and Klarissa Peña and Republican Dan Lewis — would add another $843,000 to the offer.

Union negotiations are secret. But Rob Perry, the top executive under the mayor, said the administration and police union are talking about how to settle their disagreements.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the city, the department and certainly the officers to try to resolve both issues, as it relates to salary going forward and continued restoration of money owed,” Perry said in an interview.

Sanchez said passage of the legislation would be a “great step forward for the residents of our city and the men and women of our police department.”

Reaching agreement with the union, he said, “is more important now than ever before because of the crisis the city of Albuquerque Police Department has been in for some time now retaining officers.”

The contract disputes come as City Hall struggles to fully staff its police department and carry out reforms mandated by a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The city had about 865 officers employed as of last month, or about 21 percent fewer than it had five years ago in summer 2010.

A consultant is also studying APD’s staffing levels and may recommend an increase beyond even the 1,099 officers the city had in 2010.

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation last year found APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights. The city and DOJ later reached a settlement agreement requiring a series of reforms, including a court-appointed monitor to oversee the progress.

A spokeswoman for the police union said there’s no firm agreement yet to settle the lawsuit, which alleges the city improperly withheld pay raises in 2010. A $5 million settlement, she said, would be enough to provide about $5,000 for each officer who was a dues-paying member at the time.

The city and union have been negotiating over the last year to try to resolve the 2010 lawsuit, following years of litigation.

As for a new contract, the legislation introduced Monday would provide enough money to boost the base pay of most patrol officers by 5.9 percent, or to about $58,240 a year, officials said. Officers at higher ranks wouldn’t necessarily get that much.

How the money would be divided is subject to union negotiations, not council legislation.

Union leaders participated in negotiations Monday and couldn’t offer comment because they hadn’t seen the legislation, union spokeswoman Toni Balzano said.

Peña said the council’s role in union negotiations is limited to providing the money. But she’s “optimistic” about the settlement talks, she said.

Monday’s legislation shows the police union that “there’s a serious amount attached to the discussions,” Pena said.

The proposal is scheduled for consideration at a council meeting Dec. 9.

A proposal to boost the pay of fire department cadets and probationary firefighters also was introduced Monday. Cadets would see their pay climb to $10.18 an hour and probationary firefighters to $10.47 an hour — an increases of 11 percent.

The measure is sponsored by Diane Gibson, a Democrat.

From The Albuquerque Journal