Athens City Council passed ordinances authorizing wage increases and retention payments to Athens Police Department, or APD, officers, lieutenants, and communication officers.
Council first discussed the authorization of a contract reopener with the Athens Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, and the Ohio Labor Council, or OLC, during its Jan. 10 meeting.
During Monday’s meeting, Council voted to approve the reopening of the contract, which would give APD officers, lieutenants and communication officers a 2.5% raise in 2022 and a 2.25% raise in 2023.
The wage increases will not affect the city’s budget in any significant way, and the raises were part of routine contract renewals with the APD, Councilman Sam Crowl, D-3rd Ward, said.
“It's just an annual part of (being a part of a union),” Crowl said. “Because they are a union, there is collective bargaining … so when the contract is due to be up the following year, then the union representatives and the city have to get together to talk about what will be in the next contract.”
Despite the routine nature of updating union contracts, this year’s contract was unusual, Roman Brandau, a patrol officer and labor representative for the patrol officers bargaining unit, said.
“It was an unusual negotiation because we were only able to bargain for wages,” Brandau said. “We came to an agreement during COVID to extend our last contract and then just reopen wages.”
The last contract negotiations took place in 2020. At the time, the interim service safety director felt negotiating a one-year contract would be better than the usual three-year contract, Crowl said.
“We were trying to figure out our city finances and what kind of monies we would have for the next three-year period,” Crowl said. “(The interim service-safety director) thought it was in the best interest of the city not to negotiate a three-year contract because we didn't know exactly what the pandemic's situation was going to be.”
In 2021, negotiations for the current contract began. In addition to bargaining for wages, a one-time retention payment of $1,000 was also sought.
Retention payments were included in the contract as an incentive to retain current APD officers, Brandau said.
“We are currently four officers short. We're getting ready to lose a fifth officer, and we have at least two officers that are looking to go to other departments,” Brandau said. “Our goal is to try to retain the officers that we have, especially the seasoned officers, so that we don't lose that experience to other departments.”
Most officers are leaving due to better pay and sign-on bonuses in other cities, Brandau said.
“Lancaster, for instance, is offering several dollars an hour more than our department in pay,” Brandau said. “When you're looking at $8,000 to $10,000 more per year for just 35-40 minutes up the road, some of our guys actually live up that way. It's … almost a little too much to just walk away from.”
During Monday’s meeting, Council voted to pass the ordinance authorizing the one-time retention payment of $1,000 in a 6-1 vote.
Councilman Ben Ziff, D-At Large, was the sole dissenting vote. Ziff said he voted against the ordinance because he believed a retention payment of $1,000 would not be enough money to convince officers to remain in Athens.
“Based on what these officers already make, $1,000 is not an effective motivational tool to stay,” Ziff said. “To me, it felt more like a one-time bonus as opposed to an actual retention tool, (and) I don’t feel like we should be giving out bonuses right now.”
APD certainly does not think of the retention pay as a bonus, Brandau said. He said retention pay was what was proposed, and retention pay is what APD is looking for.
Following the passing of the ordinance, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said he felt the retention payments were a good approach to keeping officers in Athens.
“I'm hearing (about issues with losing police officers) from mayors all across Southeast Ohio and, in some cases, even firefighters to larger cities because their starting salaries are almost insanely high,” Patterson said. “So, it's something as opposed to nothing.”
Whether the retention payments will have any effect on keeping APD officers in Athens is something only time will tell, Brandau said.
If officers do decide to leave APD before the end of the current contract for any reason other than retirement or disability, they are required to pay back the $1,000 retention payment.
“I don't know that it will be (enough),” Brandau said. “I think the (officers) that are being offered much more money and much higher signing bonuses are not really going to be persuaded by that $1,000.”