Austin police predict up to $30M hit if council won’t approve contract

5:38 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 Politics
Austin mounted police officers patrol Sixth Street in June. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

With a looming Austin City Council vote, police officials have begun preparing for the possibility that dozens of officers could retire by the end of the year, bringing an unexpected financial burden of millions of dollars.

Council members will vote next Wednesday on whether to approve the new labor agreement with officers that would continue an often-debated benefit under which officers are paid for up to 1,700 hours in unused sick time — the equivalent of about nine months’ pay.

If they do not approve the agreement, interim Police Chief Brian Manley and union officials say they fear officers eligible to retire will do so before the current agreement expires Dec. 29 so they may receive the sick leave pay, which could be lost if they continue working for the city without a labor agreement.

The City Council could also ask city officials to extend the current police contract and go back to the negotiating table. Union officials said they believe that’s an unlikely scenario, but the council took that route this year when Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services’ contract negotiations came to an impasse.

In a worst-case scenario, up to 300 officers with more than 20 years of service would retire, and the total payout would be about $30 million.

“My concern is that if the contract is not ratified and we do see a good portion of those officers eligible to retire take that option, we lose a lot of ground we have made up this year in terms of our staffing challenges,” Manley told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Wednesday.

Contract critics say discussions about the possibility of retirements is part of a police strategy to incite fear to sway council votes.

READ: Critics pan police union contracts

Unlike previous contracts that have passed with few objections from council leaders and community groups, the current proposal has drawn questions and scrutiny about whether citizens benefit enough from the agreement, raising the possibility that it might fail in next week’s vote. Last week, the city’s public safety commission, which makes recommendations to the council, voted in favor of the contract.

Some groups, including the Austin Justice Coalition, contend that the agreement does not provide enough oversight of police, that it does not provide for greater transparency and that officers are already the highest paid in the state.

However, police union and some city officials say that under such contracts, a civilian oversight group has unprecedented access to records in police shootings and that it gives the department greater flexibility in hiring to promote diversity.

If the contract fails, the department would operate under state civil service law, with officers hired and promoted based solely on written exams. The City Council would dictate how much officers are paid.

“Even though there is a large pool of retirees, I don’t think that pool is going to do this mass exodus,” said Chas Moore, the coalition’s director. “I don’t see that even being a real thing, and even if it is, I think that is just part of the process of trying something new. Growing pains come with not doing the same thing, but at the end of the day, I don’t see that happening.”

Ken Casaday, the Austin police union president, said the possibility of officers retiring before year’s end should be enough reason for the council to support the contract.

“The right thing is to pass this contract,” he said.

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According to Manley, 149 officers across all ranks have 23 or more years of service, which means they are eligible to retire. If all of them retired before the end of the contract, the estimated costs for their “terminal pay,” including sick time payouts, would reach $16.2 million.

In addition, Manley said 158 more officers have 20 years of service and could pay to become eligible for retirement. If all of them did, that cost would reach $15.6 million, he said.

The department has about 1,900 sworn officers.

“These are the extremes,” Manley said. “You just don’t know where it falls within the range of the 149 who are eligible, how many of them would in fact leave.”

Manley said depending on the number of departures, the department might have to add to its patrols by reassigning detectives to the street. The department has implemented that strategy during staffing shortages in the past, including earlier this year before the graduation of a new cadet class.

“We realize that we do not have then number of detectives needed to adequately handle the current case load,” he said. “When we redeploy them to patrol, those cases sit idle waiting for them to return to their assigned duties.”

Manley said it also is possible that the department could have to pay officers overtime to ensure enough are on the street.

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