Between one end of the rhetorical spectrum where people shout, “Salinas police are great, give them everything they’re asking for!” and the other end where people scream, “Salinas doesn’t have any money to give the cops if we want to have nice things like paved roads, so they should just shut up and be grateful to have jobs,” is there middle ground to be found?

One would think the city forced the issue to that middle ground when, in April, it declared it was at an impasse in negotiating a new contract with the Salinas Police Officers Association. In declaring an impasse, state law forced both parties into mediation and through a fact-finding process. But in thinking that, one would be wrong, because at the Sept. 10 City Council meeting, rather than following the recommendations of the arbitrator, the city instead voted 6-1 to impose its own last, best and final offer on the union.

It’s the first time the city has imposed a contract on the police union, and the ramifications may be far reaching. It sets a precedent: For the first time ever, Salinas city employees will be contributing to the costs of their healthcare.

Neither party was 100 percent happy with the middle ground, in which arbitrator Paul Roose of Golden Gate Dispute Resolution and a two-person panel gave both sides a little bit of what they wanted. In his report, Roose notes that for fiscal year 2017-2018, Salinas had $132 million in revenue and $122 million in expenses, and ended the year with a fund balance of $33 million – down from $42 million the prior year. The drop happened because the city made a one-time payment to the public employees retirement fund, CalPERS, to pay down its obligation and hedge against future costs.

There were 12 issues the city and the SPOA couldn’t come to terms on, but most notable are the length of a new contract (the union wanted three years, the city wanted 18 months); and salary (the union wanted 2.5 percent increases in January 2020 and 2021, while the city wanted no increase in the first year.)

Here’s what Roose and the panelists – one appointed by the union and the other by the city – recommended: Yes to the union’s proposal of a three-year contract, and yes to the association’s proposal that officers receive a 2.5 percent increase in 2020 and 2021. The panel sided with the city on health benefits, going with the proposal that union members contribute a 5-percent premium.

When it released the agenda for the Sept. 10 meeting, though, the city council had other thoughts. No salary increase.

“The city needs to be prudent with the taxpayers’ money in the face of rising costs that threaten to derail the city’s budget,” says Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, a retired Salinas homicide detective and, as current officers are quick to point out, a PERS beneficiary. “We need to do the right thing and be good stewards with our public funds.”

All of which is true: the city needs to be good stewards of the public’s money. Also true: there are a lot of police officers who make a lot of money, some exceeding $300,000 a year including benefits, and the department’s budget of $52 million is the largest line item in the city’s budget.

Also true: Those darn ramifications. Over the past 39 months, the police department hired 74 people and of those, 54 are already gone.

“We just lost three experienced officers to other agencies, two to Santa Clara and one to Morgan Hill,” says union president and K9 Officer Jim Knowlton. Two other officers who joined the department from other agencies also left and went back to their previous employers.

“Everyone close to retirement is trying to pull the plug to get out,” Knowlton says. That includes him – he was planning to retire next year, but is now looking at December.

In a note of irony, if you attended the Salinas event to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you may have noticed the hefty police presence.

That’s because every police department employee was ordered to attend, and paid overtime to do so.

MARY DUAN writes Local Spin for Monterey County Weekly. Reach her at mary@mcweekly.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan.

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