Fort Worth police ratify contract, get pay raises in deal

Posted Saturday, Mar. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Members of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, still angry over the city's major changes to the pension plan last fall, nonetheless overwhelmingly ratified a new contract with the city that gives pay raises and allows the city more flexibility in hiring officers from outside agencies.

The new contract announced Friday allows the association to reopen the contract if firefighters negotiate a better pension deal than they did.

The contract, approved by 83 percent of officers voting, also implements higher educational requirements for new lieutenants and captains, and a leadership assessment as part of the captain's promotion process.

The police association was seeking to have the pension governed by the contract. But the provision allowing the POA to reopen its contract is the only language that covers the pension, which underwent major changes last fall as city officials worked to rein in a burgeoning unfunded gap.

"We're excited that it's ratified," said Mayor Betsy Price, who hadn't read the contract as of Friday morning. "It's my understanding that it's very balanced for everyone involved."

Sgt. Steve Hall, Police Officers Association president, said he expects the City Council will approve the contract, rather than reject it, which would send both sides back to bargaining.

"I just don't think there's anything patently offensive," he said.

Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis, who led the city's negotiating team, said, "I don't think there's anything too radical in this agreement that would give rise to concerns" among council members.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead, who said he wasn't personally involved in the negotiations, said the agreement was fair.

"In today's demanding financial times of budget cuts, I thought this was a good agreement ... for the police officers and the members of the association," he said.

City Council members are tentatively scheduled to vote on the contract March 26, and it could go into effect in April.

The contract, which extends through Sept. 30, 2016, includes pay raises of 1 percent for 2013-2014, which kicks in Oct. 1, 2 percent for 2014-15; 1 percent at the beginning of the 2015-2016 year and 2 percent in the middle of that year. The police association's most recent contract in 2008 included pay raises of 3, 3, 3.5, and 3.25 percent for the four years.

So-called "step" raises for years of tenure stay the same under the new contract - 5 percent for each of the first four years, and 2.5 percent every other year after that until a cap hits at the 16th year.

Pension tension

The pay raises in a tight budget environment led the contract improvements for police still angry over the pension. "There's no good way to characterize that," Hall said of the tension.

The case is now subject of a lawsuit in state District Court in Fort Worth.

The city is in ongoing contract talks with its firefighters on a new contract. The firefighters' contract, unlike the police officers', covers the pension. And the firefighters have more leverage under their collective bargaining rights, compared to the police, who are covered by the state's "meet and confer" law.

Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association, declined comment on the police contract Friday.

Vince Chasteen, president of the city's general employees association, said, "at least the city didn't cave to the police on the pension."

But of the pay raises - general employees didn't get one this year and have had a sparse record of them in recent years - he said, "it brings us back to, 'OK, what are you doing for the general employees? Our insurance goes up same as fire and police does.'"

"It's a challenge, when you're dealing with organized unions representing public safety employees," Alanis said. "It opens up a different dialogue."

The city intends to examine compensation in the "near term," she said.

Hall acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue.

"It's very sensitive," he said of the general employees' concerns. "They want their pocketbooks adjusted also."

Contract details

The changes in the contract:

Education: Newly promoted lieutenants would have four years to obtain 60 hours of college credit, or an associate degree, or be demoted. Newly promoted captains would have five years to obtain a bachelor's degree. Fort Worth's only education requirement for police today is a high school diploma, or GED with 30 hours college credit.

Changes in promotion of lieutenants to captain: Candidates today are ranked based on a written test. Under the new contract, candidates would submit to an outside assessment designed to delve into their ability to lead, and the results would be weighed equally with the written test. The city raised the same idea in 2008, but the police association wanted professional outside assessors, Hall said. The new contract also gives candidates extra points in the rankings for years of service at lieutenant, and having a master's degree. The city names one or two new captains annually, Hall said.

Disciplinary information: Police who are subject to internal affairs complaints today can't view the material the city collects in those cases, unless their attorney requests it as part of the appeals discovery process. The new contract would allow viewing of the evidence.

Opening up hiring from other agencies: With the police having 60 vacancies for officers and only able to keep up with attrition, the city asked for more freedom to recruit officers already working for police agencies in cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Under the new contract, such recruits would enter a shortened Fort Worth police academy and enter at higher pay than entry level, which is where officers coming from outside agencies must now enter, regardless of their experience. Halstead would be responsible for designing the academy model for these recruits. The new contract caps the number of officers who can be hired from other agencies at 30 per year.

Hall said he's looked into similar programs in Los Angeles and El Paso and is skeptical it'll work in Fort Worth. "They're just not hiring a bunch of guys into their lateral entry programs," he said.

Tuition reimbursement: The new contract includes the city's education reimbursement policy, allowing up to $1,500 per semester and a maximum $4,500, for job-related courses, continuing education, and technical classes. The reimbursements are guaranteed for the contract term.

More civilian crime scene personnel: The contract allows the city to hire another three civilian crime scene personnel, without cutting police from the unit.

The police contract expired Sept. 30 last year. The city and police association started negotiations in late 2011.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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