WILMINGTON, DE – A five-year battle over a new contract between the city of Wilmington and its police officers is now headed to the Delaware Supreme Court.
After a vice chancellor shot down a labor board decision that would have given 3 percent pay raises to Wilmington police officers, the union representing the officers filed an appeal to the state’s top court.
On July 31, Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves found that an arbitrator and the Public Employment Relations Board erred in approving the retroactive pay increase as it was proposed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, which negotiates for the city’s approximately 310 rank-and-file officers.
“Unfortunately, these men and women who are doing their jobs have not had a raise or a contract in (five) years,” said Wilmington Councilman Michael A. Brown Sr., head of the Public Safety Committee. “They’ve waited so long, and it was a letdown to them.”
FOP President Harold Bozeman and the attorney representing the union in the negotiations did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Said Alexandra Coppadge, a spokeswoman for the city: “As the city has been able to reach an amicable agreement with all other unions, we remain hopeful we will be able to reach an agreement with the FOP that not only covers the past years, but also moves forward to cover the present and possibly future years.”
Wilmington police officers have been working without a contract since July 2011. The two sides met at the bargaining table several times between 2012 and 2014 but had to turn to an arbitrator to break the stalemate.
Last year, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the police union’s proposal of a 3 percent retroactive pay increase over a term of three years.
The agreement called for a four-year agreement covering the period from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2015, and for a retroactive 2 percent pay raise in 2013 and a 1 percent increase in 2015. There would be no increase for 2012 and 2014.
The arbitrator rejected proposals made by the city, including a plan to reduce the cap on unused sick days that could be paid out upon retirement, and changing the way officers contribute to their health care costs.
The News Journal reported at the time that the retroactive raises would have cost the city approximately $2.29 million and increase wages by about $955,000 annually for the rank-and-file police officers.
The Delaware Public Employment Relations Board upheld the arbitrator’s decision, concluding that the police union’s proposal was a fair offer and should be granted.
The city appealed the board’s decision, and the two sides agreed to hold off on implementing the pay raise pending the outcome of the appeal.
In a 29-page court opinion, Montgomery-Reeves said the arbitrator was wrong in the way he compared the costs and benefits of the union’s offer to those enjoyed by other police departments in similar communities.
Using personal knowledge of the communities, the arbitrator refused to consider similar sized police forces in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and instead relied on a comparison of Wilmington police and the New Castle County Police Department, which share roughly the same number of officers and are close in proximity.
“As a result, at least two of the seven statutory factors appear to have been decided in favor of Lodge 1 based on the arbitrator’s improper selection of a comparable bargaining unit,” she wrote. “Because it is unclear whether the arbitrator’s ultimate selection of an offer would have differed absent his error, the board and the arbitrator are reversed.”
Montgomery-Reeves said the matter was remanded back to the arbitrator and board for further proceedings. This decision, however, will now be considered by the Supreme Court.
Even if the issue is resolved, contract negotiations will likely continue since the contract, if it were approved, would have expired in 2015.
Brown hopes the contract issue can be resolved.
“We’ve got to do something to increase their pay, to show them we are grateful for them putting their lives on the line, and even though they haven’t seen a contract in years, they still get out there every day and run from call to call to protect and serve our citizens,” he said.