Stockton’s city manager and main police union representative are butting heads over a whopping 34% raise police claim is necessary to match other cities Stockton lagged after its bankruptcy.
This is the most consequential fiscal decision of the fiscal year (fy) 2022-23 budget. On the one hand, the police department is bleeding dissatisfied cops. On the other, the city’s long-range solvency remains a serious concern.
‘We’re not the federal government,” said City Manager Harry Black, who disputes the 34% figure, claiming the pay gap is more like 20%. “We can’t keep printing money.”
Counters the police union president, Det. Patrick High, “There is no way that Stockton will be able to retain and recruit any candidate if every city around it makes visibly more money.”
The SPD is budgeted for 485 sworn officers. It has plunged below 400. Officers are leaving for higher-paying jobs.
Stockton’s in a squeeze. The law requires cities to balance budgets. Deficit spending is forbidden. Yet the city must also pay off millions in Chapter 9 debt for years to come.
Plus, the dubiously managed state pension system, CalPERS, just reported losing money on its investments. When CalPERS loses money, it hikes cities’ pension bills.
And a recession may be in the offing. The double whammy of overspending and a revenue-sapping recession is what crashed the crazy train last time.
To avoid “Chapter 18,” a repeat municipal bankruptcy, the city has a sophisticated Long-Range Fiscal Plan, or L-RFP, stretching to 2040. The city’s fiscal team feeds proposed expenditures into this program to see if they are sustainable.
Black says the city’s last offer is “a stretch,” but doable, and necessary: a 16% raise over a 3-year contract, a 2% per year health contribution, and a $5,000 one-time payment, a $39.5 million deal. Officials say they likely can close the gap completely come next contract.
But a 34% raise now could break the bank, Black said.
“We are in the yellow zone as I call it,” he said. “Doing anything more significant would put us in, I believe, a danger zone.”
City and union each determined the going rate through a process called a salary survey. A salary survey looks at what other cities pay — a half-dozen to a dozen comparable cities, usually.
The key word is “comparable.” Unless correctly done, comparing cities of similar size and economies, salary surveys spit out bogus, apples-to-oranges comparisons.
Stockton once set compensation by a ludicrous metric that included Fremont, Pasadena, and Huntington Beach. City employees sailed that Huntington Beach yacht to the Isle of Stony Broke.
The city refused to share its salary survey, citing negotiation confidentiality. The police union looked at Lathrop, Tracy, Lodi, Manteca, and Elk Grove. Stockton cops leave for these cities, High said.
This survey is flawed. The median household income in Elk Grove, for instance, is $101,776 (US Census) compared to Stockton’s, $58,393. Elk Grove pays more because it can afford to.
But the exodus of cops is a fact. “How do you recruit somebody,” High persuasively asks, “when they can go literally five minutes down the road to another agency?”
Other media settle for reporting on pay disparity, which allows the union to frame the story, as if there’s nothing else to consider. We mentioned relative economies; how about how well cops do their job?
Stockton’s police department is coming off a decade of reform and innovation that has introduced policies such as reconciliation, implicit bias training, and procedural justice. All good.
Still, if crime is up, understaffing may not be the only reason. A job performance review seems in order, like everybody else gets when they ask for a raise.
This column can’t review the entire department (hopefully the City Manager does). But let’s look at one division, homicide.
Below, police staff levels are correlated with the homicide “clearance rate”—the percentage of murder cases solved–over the past six years:
- 2016: 417 cops, clearance rate 30.6 %
- 2017: 445, 39.3%
- 2018: 467, 63.6%
- 2019: 461, 47.1%
- 2020: 462, 66.1%
- 2021: 424, 52.5%
Average percentage of murder cases solved: 49.8%
These numbers aren’t perfect. Cold cases solved years later aren’t added to the average, for instance.
Additionally, “We’re down seven homicide detectives,” High said.
That said, the numbers show that even in years when the Stockton Police Department enjoyed nearly its full complement of 485 officers, the solve rate was not that impressive.
Fresno police’s 2021 solve rate was 73%. Its solve rate for 2022 so far is 86%.
One number from one crime category is far from the whole story. But it is part of the story.
One last factoid. According to the accompanying pie chart, police take by far the largest slice of Stockton’s General Fund, 53%. Add Fire, and public safety takes 72%.
If the police union accepts the city offer, that percentage swells to 75%.
This is not to begrudge public safety personnel fair compensation. But that percentage is well above the standard for cities over 200,000. The usual range is 60% to 64%, Black said.
Dollars that go to public safety do not go to roads, parks, city trees, recreation programs, libraries, etc. So the police contract is not just about fair compensation vs. municipal solvency. It’s about the quality of life and services Stockton taxpayers get.
Or don’t get. The city’s population grew 9% over the past 10 years, but service levels are frozen somewhere around fy 2008-09. Leaders had hoped to add staff and fix more potholes this year. Raises for police will absorb much of that money.
Now, you ask, why is Stockton’s public safety cost so high? Good question, citizen. Three reasons I can see.
- First, crime is higher in Stockton.
- Second, the city collects fewer tax dollars from residents, so the General Fund is smaller, hence the proportion of market-rate public safety costs is higher. That’s nobody’s fault.
- Third, previous city leaders gave cops and firefighters overly sweet contracts. That’s definitely somebody’s fault.
Negotiations resume Thursday. Both sides say a deal is close.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: email@example.com.