County police pack council meeting; urge OK of promised raises

Officers+and+sergeants+from+the+St.+Louis+County+Police+Department+applaud+as+fellow+officer+and+union+representative+Derek+Machens+calls+for+raises+at+an+Oct.+12%2C+2017%2C+hearing+at+the+County+Council.

Photo by Gloria Lloyd

Officers and sergeants from the St. Louis County Police Department applaud as fellow officer and union representative Derek Machens calls for raises at an Oct. 12, 2017, hearing at the County Council.

By Gloria Lloyd
Staff Reporter
news3@callnewspapers.com

Police officers packed a County Council meeting last week to urge that their promised raises under Proposition P be approved as soon as possible, but some council members want to take their time with the plan.
Voters weighed in on average 30-percent raises for the St. Louis County Police Department with overwhelming support for Prop P in April. Bargaining wrapped up between County Executive Steve Stenger and the St. Louis County Police Officers’ Association. However, the raises have to beapproved by the council just like any other budget item.
While some council members spoke out in favor of the Prop P raises last week, others ducked out of the room or abstained instead of voting for them at an Oct. 12 Committee of the Whole meeting. The 2-1-1 vote failed to advance the bargaining contract, but is non-binding. The council was set to take up the raises at meetings Monday and Tuesday — after the Call went to press.
In favor of the raises were 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said he supported the raises but cast a “no” vote due to pension concerns. Since a council bill needs four votes to advance, the vote did not count as a positive recommendation of the police contract. It has no effect on the bill’s status at the council’s regular meetings.
After 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, left the meeting before the vote, 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, also appeared to be heading out of the chambers, but returned and abstained. If Gray had left, the council would have no longer had a quorum. Both 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, were absent.
Harder tried to call Erby back into the Council Chambers to vote, as she was just outside the chambers in the hallway, he said.
Under the proposed police contract, officers would get immediate raises with a step schedule similar to that of teachers that outlines what raise they will receive for every year of service up to the maximum.
Salaries for police officers will range from $52,208 out of the academy to $77,168 after 15 years of service. Sergeants get their own pay matrix that ranges from $70,512 in the first year as a sergeant to $90,480 after a decade.
Although attendance from the council itself was sparse, it was standing-room-only in the crowd as police officers, including many in uniform, their wives and command staff lined the chambers.
Melissa Wallace, whose husband is a county detective, said, “It is absurd to me that my husband with 11 years of experience makes the same as a brand-new officer … Imagine if you ran the risk of being shot or mowed down just doing your job — would you do this for $48,000 a year? I certainly wouldn’t.”
Other police wives said their husbands work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Two officials from south county threw their support behind the raises, including Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, and Mehlville Fire Protection District Community Education Officer Jim Hampton, who retired as a deputy chief from the MFPD but continues to serve the fire district.
“I’m just an average guy on a pension, and my taxes are going up, but I don’t care if it’s to keep my children and grandchildren safe,” Hampton said. “I think it’s way past time, about 10 years’ past time.”
Officer Jamie Reiter, a 26-year veteran, said he was promised yearly pay raises when he was initially hired to the county force. But budget cuts meant the promised raises never materialized.
“How are we to support our families?” he said. “The job is difficult, and the pay is worse.”
Page said he supports the officers, who deserve a “big raise.” But he held the hearing and is stalling the bill because he doubts Budget Director Paul Kreidler’s projections of how much more the county should contribute to police pensions due to the new higher salaries.
“I think they need a big raise, I think this raise is great,” Page said. “But what I’m against is not funding the pension appropriately enough to back up the raise, and we’re not doing that. And I need to understand that. I don’t want to rush this through and not make sure that the pension is appropriately funded, and we have plenty of time to do that before January of 2018.”
As one example, Page said that he doubts Kreidler’s formula takes into account the sergeants who will receive $20,000 more in salary shortly before they retire. The county will pay out pensions based on the higher Prop P salary, but has not been contributing to the pension at that higher rate.
But the Prop P pension calculation of how much to add for benefits, 26 cents for every dollar in salary, is the same as any other raise, Stenger said. The formula never changes and builds in that some officers will retire at higher salaries than contributed, while some officers leave before ever taking their pensions.
Stenger doubts that the problem comes down to pension concerns. And if it does, he said the council recently dropped a bill that would have restructured pensions going forward to make the retirement fund more solvent in the future.
“I think there may be some politics involved, and I’m not sure exactly what those politics are,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that would justify withholding it. It’s a raise that is going to our brave men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line every day.”
St. Louis County Police Association Business Manager Matt Crecelius, a county officer, pointed out that every council member’s district voted for Prop P, but he mentioned specific winning percentages for Trakas — 70 percent of south county voters — and the three Democrats on the council who have formed a working majority coalition.
The officers didn’t hold their feelings back about Erby, laughing when she objected to the tone of some of the speakers: “I don’t understand that attitude, I don’t understand it.”
When the crowd erupted in laughter, Erby replied, “So it’s funny? You’re here asking us to consider a raise for you, and it’s funny? How is this funny? This is serious.”
When the crowd continued to push back against Erby, she later said that she is a supporter of police and has several family members who are police officers.
“I think you are underpaid, I think you do need a raise, but to come here and attack us?” she said. “We have some officers who have that attitude. That really bothers me, because I’m an advocate for the Police Department.”