Even As Lawsuit Gets in the Way, Sheriff and Union Agree that “Substantial” Raises Are Due
FlaglerLive | November 19, 2014
It’s been five years since deputies and other employees at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office got a serious raise. There are some deputies who make $36,000 a year after almost a decade’s service at the agency. That’s several thousand dollars less than a starting teacher in Flagler schools, despite six, seven or eight years’ service. With the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office just awarding a 4 percent raise top its ranks and other agencies in surrounding counties doing likewise, local deputies are taking the training and experience they’ve accrued here and looking elsewhere—a double loss for the Sheriff’s Office, as it costs a lot of money to train a new deputy, and experience can only be gained over time.
Earlier this year the sheriff’s administration and the employees’ union—the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association and Public Employee Association, which represent sworn deputies and administrative, non-uniformed employees—jointly paid $5,000 for a salary study. The study found that most rank-and-file employees were underpaid, and that they should be raised to a minimum of the range within each of their recommended pay grade. Typically, that would work out to about a $5,000 increase for deputies, or a 6 percent raise.
To put that in perspective: The previous sheriff, Don Fleming, awarded his ranks three successive, compounding raises that by April 2009, had netted employees a 33.8 percent pay increase. But those raises were negotiated at the height of the housing boom, when Flagler was awash in money—and was about to go bust. The raises being discussed now are small in comparison—and getting smaller.
If anything, employees have taken a pay cut and seen their salaries further eroded by the cost of living: two years ago they were required to start contributing 3 percent of their pay to the Florida Retirement System, which amounted to an equivalent pay cut. And in the past five years, they’ve seen their benefits costs increase, reducing their take-home pay, and inflation, while modest, reduce their purchasing power further.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, an employee who was paid $35,000 in 2009 would have had to be paid $38,000 this year—just to stay even with the cost of inflation. Ironically, the sheriff himself benefited from a relatively substantial raise when the salary was increased from $120,394 to $125,118 two years ago, which equates to 4 percent–and an additional 0.4 percent this year–though the Sheriff’s Office or the county commission had nothing to do with it: constitutional officers’ salaries are set by the state.
There is no disagreement between Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre and the union that “substantial raises,” as Manfre puts it, are needed. He considers his employees underpaid, and his agency at risk a deputy drain to other agencies. “I completely agree that after five years of no increases or no substantial increases,” Manfre said Wednesday, “that our employees as well as county employees need to have substantial raises. There’s no light between us on that issue.”
Yet the union and the Sheriff’s Office have been at an impasse in negotiations since late October, when the union’s chief negotiator, Mike Scudiero, declared impasse after a brief negotiating session. That impasse may not end until late January or early February, when the two sides have agreed to a mediation session with an administrative judge. But even then, whatever the judge recommends can be accepted or rejected by either side, leaving the County Commission to be the final arbiter. It is extremely rare in Florida history, where unions by law have very little power and are essentially at the mercy of management, that elected officials side with unions against their employer: The Palm Coast City Council recently illustrated that dynamic with its firefighters’ union. In the sheriff’s case, the commission channels the money to the sheriff, so it’s not a disinterested party.
What led to that point is a difference less over substance than over timing, caused in large part by lawsuits saddling the sheriff’s administration. A degree of mistrust and some finger-pointing is also to blame, even though both sides have handled the negotiations amicably and with respect. The sheriff’s camp blames the union for declaring impasse rather than negotiating. The union blames the sheriff’s office for refusing to make any substantial proposal it could take to its membership.
“The problem is we’re being told no, no and no,” Scudiero said, “how many ways can you hear no before you declare impasse?”
There is also a fundamental disagreement over what, precisely, divides the two sides. The sheriff says the union wanted a 6 percent raise right off the bat. That’s true in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s not the whole truth: the 6 percent request was only the starting point in negotiations, based on the salary study. The union is aware of current budget realities, and was quickly willing to talk of more realistic terms: 1 percent.
“We’re not here asking enormous raises in the face of everybody else struggling too,” a sheriff’s employee familiar with the negotiations, who asked for anonymity, said. “We’re trying to get back to even from what we’ve lost over the past few years, and then trying to get it up to par to where we’re supposed to be.”
The sheriff recognizes that shift tangentially rather than officially.
“I don’t believe they’ve ever made that statement in negotiations. That would be news to me,” Sid Nowell, one of the sheriff’s attorneys, said. (Another attorney, Wayne Helsby, is the lead negotiator for the sheriff, though Nowell has been involved.)
But the 1 percent—what would amount to a mere $400 per rank and file employee, or $187,000 in all–has been at the heart of discussions outside of formal negotiating sessions nevertheless, since the county commission awarded the money for that 1 percent with raises in mind: that’s not in question, either. That money was to be disbursed, as it was for county employees, at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. It wasn’t. (The county commission provides the money, but it may n ot attach demands on how the money is used.)
Manfre isn’t disputing why the money was held back: a federal lawsuit over labor practices filed by one former employee, since joined by four more, is compelling him to keep money in reserve to use depending on how the lawsuit is resolved. Essentially, the employees say they were cheated of overtime pay when required to attend briefings off the clock: an internal memo from the sheriff’s own human resources director appeared to agree, making it more than likely that some form of pay-out will be part of a settlement. Manfre says the practice was in place before he took office and has since been scrapped.
“That lawsuit came in after my budget,” Manfre said. “We’re in the process of trying to settle that lawsuit. The settlement of that lawsuit is going to put dollars in their pocket. They’re going to get the increase either through the lawsuit or through an increase.”
In other words if more employees join the lawsuit, the pay-out would equate to a 1 percent raise to them, and if no additional employees join the lawsuit, then the sheriff said there’d be money in the pot to award the balance of the money in the form of the 1 percent raise.
“Internally,” Nowell said today, “we’re still trying to work through the numbers and trying to identify options to provide the employees a raise. I think it’s fair to say that the sheriff believes his employees are entitled to a raise, but he has to get the money somewhere, and internally that’s what we’re trying to work on. Another option the union could take would be let’s start talking about next year’s budget and what kind of raises could be included in that, and get the county commission involved. That would make a lot more sense than trying to get something out of nothing at this point.”But if the union never made its request for a 1 percent raise official—a contention the union disputes—the Sheriff’s Office never put any proposal in writing, including a pledge to make that 1 percent raise available in one way or another this year—or its proposal to institute a three-pronged “step” plan for future raises, even though, again, both sides agree in principle on the value of just such a step plan.
Scudiero keeps returning to the matter of having something he can take to the membership. “If it’s something remotely acceptable we would take it to the membership for a vote, but we’ve gotten no offer whatsoever,” he said, stressing that the 1 percent, at the least, should have been released. “Because the sheriff can’t get his legal ducks in a row should not be the problem of our membership.” He added: “We can’t accept that, I don’t think the county commission will accept that, I don’t think the special magistrate will accept that.” Even the step-plan proposal is attached to “no guarantee whatsoever with it,” Scudiero said. “Without a guarantee, it’s going to be a hard sell.”
Nevertheless, the two sides appear to have hardened in words more than in fact, with willingness on both sides to work out something this year, particularly as the matter has been gaining more attention. A mediation session on the federal lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 3, when the amount the sheriff may have to pay employees will likely become clearer—if there is a settlement. That may be grounds for a breakthrough in negotiations with the union.
“Everything is negotiable,” Scudiero said, “and if they want to come to the table with an offer that pouts us into 2015 at some point but with some guaranteed money, we’d have to take that very seriously,” though he noted that talking only 1 percent in 2015 would not be acceptable anymore. “If I can get an offer that I can take to the membership, I’d be happy.”
“I think for next year we’re going to be successful,” Manfre said, underscoring the importance of the union also making its case for substantial raises to the county commission, “and for this year one way or another the sworn officers will get some sort of increase.”