Tulsa police officers don’t believe Mayor Dewey Bartlett supports them and they question why now, of all times, he would choose to pick a public fight over compensation, the local police union president said Friday.
“We have a problem in Tulsa,” said Clay Ballenger, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93. “The police officers believe that they are not supported by the leader of this city.
“Someone they should be looking to for guidance and support instead is attacking police officers in a very public way and accusing them of misleading (the public) and saying they are making too much money and take up too much of the budget.”
Bartlett said last week that the city needs to rein in public safety spending — which consumes 61 percent of the general fund budget — if the city is to remain fiscally sound and able to operate other departments.
He also accused the police union and its supporters of misleading the public during discussions of their fiscal year 2014 contract. The city and the union are currently negotiating their 2015 contract.
The mayor’s remarks came at the same time he was proposing a separate tax to fund the addition of 70 police officers, and existing officers were working around the clock to track down a serial rapist.
Ballenger said police officers never misled the public and that it was “reckless and irresponsible” for the mayor to make those remarks when he did.
“He should, again, be supporting us and working with us instead of tearing us down in public because we go out on the streets every day to defend the citizens and put criminals in jail,” he said.
“And we absolutely have to have the trust of the citizens.”
Ballenger said it makes no sense for the mayor to say publicly that he wants to hire more police officers while working to cut police pay and benefits.
“Why would anybody ever want to come to work for the Tulsa Police Department when they read that or bring a business (into town) or anything else?” he said.
Bartlett has said he does not want to cut pay but pointed to benefits such as comp pay and education stipends as ways the city might be able to cut costs.
Ballenger said the police union would prefer to keep contract discussions private but that he believes he has no other choice but to respond to the mayor’s remarks.
The union president made no apologies for the fact that the city’s public safety departments account for 61 percent of the general fund.
That is about the same percentage or less than what is spent by other Oklahoma municipalities, Ballenger said.
The figure is about 12 percent when the city’s entire budget is taken into account, according to Ballenger.
“First and foremost, police services — protecting the public — and fire services are the core services any city government is expected by its citizens to provide,” he said. “There is a cost to public safety, and at the same time citizens expect to have well-qualified, dedicated police and firefighters. Your top priority is going to get more of your budget.”
Among the issues Ballenger took exception to were the mayor’s concern over the cost to the city of police comp time and longevity pay.
When a police officer works overtime, he or she has the option of taking comp time or overtime pay.
Ballenger said the Police Department’s comp time program saves the city $1.5 million a year it would otherwise have to pay in overtime.
Bartlett is trying to lead residents to believe that officers hold onto all of their comp time and then cash it in when they retire, leading to a big expense for the city, Ballenger said.
“That can’t happen,” he said. “No. 1, we have a maximum number of 170 hours we can accrue, and after that you have to take pay. No. 2, we use about the same number of hours in leave each year that we earn.”
Ballenger said he has numbers — confirmed by City Manager Jim Twombly — that show officers earn approximately 50,000 to 52,000 hours of comp time each year and take about an equal amount in leave.
“The city doesn’t pay a dime for that,” Ballenger said.
Retiring police officers leave the force with an average of about 80 hours of comp time, Ballenger said. With an attrition rate of 24 officers a year, that amounts to an average of less than $60,000 paid annually for comp time.
“It seems like a great situation for the employees and the city,” Ballenger said. “Why they would want to eliminate that is a bad business decision. It doesn’t make sense.”
Longevity pay — like satisfactory performance increases and education pay — is a benefit that has been offered to police officers for decades with the understanding that the city would make good on it, Ballenger said.
“When you look at what a Tulsa police officer earns, it is all of these things together as a package....” Ballenger said. “Anything the mayor would want to take away from that is a pay cut, and again, I don’t think the citizens of Tulsa want to cut police officers’ pay with crime on the rise” and the need to hire more employees.
Tulsa has the second-highest population in the state, and its police officers’ pay ranks eighth among the state’s 10 largest cities, Ballenger said.
Police officers would prefer to work with the mayor and his administration to come up with a contract that works in the best interest of all Tulsans, the union president said, but the mayor has created a difficult environment for that to take place.
“I talk to different officers and their families every day who are out here working hard, who feel the city administration doesn’t support them,” Ballenger said. “You can’t (say) you support someone while at the same time attacking their livelihood.”