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Community Perspective

Fairbanks Police Department reorganization is problematic

The city of Fairbanks has four union collective bargaining agreements (CBA’s) covering most of the 182 authorized positions. Some of these contracts are fairly easy to negotiate, but others take much more time. It is difficult for new council members to read the lengthy contracts and to thoroughly understand them. There has been much discussion in the past about trying to reduce the number of CBAs, but each is unique to the department they cover making any consolidation impractical.

The Police Department and Communications Center are covered by a contract with the Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA) with the exception of the police chief who is in the IBEW bargaining unit. Last year, an effort was started to separate out just six employees from this unit and form a fifth CBA entitled Fairbanks Police Command Unit (FPCU). Ordinance number 6169 is currently in front of the City Council to create this unit and advanced on a 4 to 3 vote to a public hearing on June 14.

This management unit consists of a deputy chief, captain and four lieutenants. Currently these positions are hourly, but the proposed contract will make them salaried. Annually, the deputy chief will make $135,000, the captain $130,000, and the four lieutenants $125,000 to $129,500 each depending upon their shift. Ironically, the deputy chief will make more than the chief currently makes. These salaries are on the average about 20% higher than their current salaries. Justification for the large increase is that they can no longer earn overtime and should be permanently compensated for this loss. Overtime accumulation for some positions has been high, while for others virtually non-existent (the deputy chief earned only $457.45 in 2019 for the whole year). Overtime is inevitable in police work, but fluctuates greatly with staffing, policies and other factors. Simply raising all of them by 20% or more is not logical and assumes that the city can never reduce overtime even if approaching full staffing.

Officers in this new unit will also receive one hour of compensation (comp time) for each extra hour worked up to a maximum of 240 hours (30 days). The reality is that employees will wisely use comp time for vacations instead of their leave time. Leave time can accumulate up to 600 hours and can be cashed out. If not immediately used or cashed out, the liability to the city will grow as salaries increase over time. Salaried positions in the private sector virtually never earn comp time, but it is becoming common place in government.

Another alarming development in the Police Department is the restructuring of staff. The 2020 budget included 45 police officers of which 27 officers were dedicated for on-street coverage. The 2021 budget reduces this to 23 dedicated on-street officers, but adds a captain, a sergeant, and a desk corporal. The footnote on the staffing page in the budget states “Council approved a temporary Captain position for one-year by non-funding two police officer positions.” National police standards address human resource allocation, and we are becoming more “top heavy” over time which is a reversal of practices over the past aimed at focusing on our street presence. The captain position was last utilized in 1995.

City councils for many years have faithfully maintained funding for staffing levels in the Police Department that keep us above the national average for cities our size. This is done even knowing that some positions will most likely not be filled but reaffirms a financial commitment to the department and a staffing goal. Creating a new CBA and reducing our on-street presence in the 2021 budget are steps in the wrong direction and present very real long lasting concerns.

Jerry Cleworth serves on the city of Fairbanks Finance Committee.

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