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Experts Cite Precedent, Risk in Parity Pay Scale

In the world of municipal labor negotiations, tying a police force’s wages to those of other departments is commonplace, although experts agree that it can be risky business for both sides.

For unions, “in the future, they could be locking themselves into something,” said Michael Scott, a research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington. “It’s a gamble they take.”

For cities, warned Richard (Bud) Carpenter of the League of California Cities, there is the specter of losing control.

“In effect you’re then taking it out of the hands of the city council to fix their own salaries,” said Carpenter, the league’s employee relations counsel.

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The Simi Valley Police Officers Assn. just won a four-year contract that, if ratified by the City Council, will grant wage parity with other police forces for the first time in the department’s 18-year history. Under the agreement, scheduled for approval Monday by the City Council, the city will conduct a salary survey of 12 Southern California police forces and pay Simi Valley officers the average.

Although the survey won’t be conducted until the contract’s last year--a controversial concession by the union--police spokesmen said the wage formula is a coup nonetheless.

“Granted, it doesn’t happen until the fourth year, but at least it happens,” said Sgt. Gary Collins, the union’s spokesman.

“It certainly is a positive recognition by the city that Simi Valley is not an island separate and apart from the rest of Southern California,” said union attorney Stephen Silver.

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While Scott generally agreed that higher wages will attract more applicants and raise the caliber of Simi Valley’s force, he also warned that average salaries over the long term could leave Simi Valley in the middle of the pack and soften any competitive edge that it might gain in the short term.

Carpenter said that while salary surveys have been used for the last 30 years to varying degrees, they snare cities into cycles of inflation.

But Nathaniel Trives, a criminal justice professor at Cal State Los Angeles and a former police officer and mayor of Santa Monica, disagreed.

“I think the notion that the cities selected will all inflate their salaries and then Simi Valley will have to inflate its salaries is not likely because city managers and councils discuss these things at conventions,” Trives said. “It’s not an isolated world.”

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Greatest Hurdles

The biggest hurdles during Simi Valley’s negotiations were agreeing on a list of which departments will be surveyed, and then whether the union should receive a full average or merely a percentage of the average salary, said spokesmen for both sides. Disagreement over those issues was profound enough to cause a three-week deadlock and subsequently prompt about 200 police supporters to pack a City Council meeting.

“I don’t think anybody picked cities without looking at salaries first,” Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said.

Talks resumed after the pivotal council meeting, and the city ultimately agreed to pay a full average if the wage formula could be held off until the contract’s last year.

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The police forces to be surveyed include Burbank, Santa Monica, Oxnard, Orange and the sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Simi Valley officers are now paid the least among that group, but they will receive a 7.5% raise in the contract’s first year, Silver said. The base salary for patrolmen, the lowest-ranking officers, is $26,472 a year.

And while the two sides will return to the bargaining table just a year after the salary survey is finally conducted, Silver and Stratton said they believed that a precedent had been set.


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