City, police reach agreement for new contract

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 4, 2012

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BIRMINGHAM — December brought much more than the holiday season for the city of Birmingham and its police officers. Early in the month, the Police Officers Association arrived at a new collective bargaining agreement that will last through June of 2013.

Assistant City Manager Joseph Valentine said the arbitration, which was settled within one day, is a win-win for the city and the union.

“I think it’s a victory for both parties. As much as it helps the city in controlling city costs, it helps the police officers going forward.”

Officer Chris Koch, who serves as union president, said the officers were leery of the agreement, but are pleased overall with the outcome.

“Most officers are happy to have a contract settled. It’s been 3 1/2 years.”

The agreement came with several changes to the contract the officers had been working under, which expired June 20, 2008. The first is a zero percent wage adjustment for the next three years, meaning no wage increases, although the agreement did provide a 2 1/2 percent wage adjustment in 2008 and a 1 percent adjustment in 2009.

“When we went into this, we weren’t looking for any big ticket items,” said Koch of the wage increases for 2008 and 2009. “The raises that were given to us were raises that the Fire Department were given, so we just wanted to meet the status quo.”

The new contract also includes provisions concerning newly hired officers, including a defined contribution retirement savings plan and a retirement health savings plan for new hires. It increases cost sharing for both employee and retiree health care expenses, and eliminates longevity payments for new officers. These cuts, though, have the union concerned.

“The one part we were really skeptical about was the defined contribution. None of the officers pay into Social Security, so we don’t have that to fall back on. We were worried it would hinder people when they get to retirement age,” said Koch.

He said the wages and benefits for Birmingham police are below those of comparable cities, and the defined contribution plan may make it hard to attract and keep new members of the force.

“You want the best quality officers for your city, and we want officers who want to stay here. But if they find something better elsewhere, you can’t get mad at them if they take a job with better pay and benefits. Yeah, it’s a worry, but only time will tell.”

According to City Manager Robert Bruner, the concessions were necessary to keep the city fiscally sound.

“The city and the union worked hard to reach an agreement that would reduce the city’s pension and retiree health care costs while continuing to provide a financially secure retirement for our employees. The members of the Police Officers Association should be commended for helping us achieve these goals.”

Valentine agreed, saying the downturn in the economy made for a lengthy battle between the city and the union, but the officers were willing to compromise to get the task done.

“We do appreciate the police officers making the concessions and having the understanding of where things are at right now. To be able to control legacy costs from this point forward is only going to better serve the employees and the residents in the long term.”

The agreement will still need to be approved by the Birmingham City Commission, and will likely be on the agenda at the Jan. 9 meeting. According the Koch, Fire Department contracts should be up for negotiation in the coming weeks.

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