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28.10.08

Sustain Glover veto; find ways to make his budget realistic

In August, Shreveport City Councilman Bryan Wooley announced he had an idea to increase police pay and address retention concerns. The plan that evolved would produce raises that would create a salary compression in the middle ranks of the department while giving smaller raises throughout all ranks except chief. The plan passed at the last council meeting by a 4-3 vote.

But Mayor Cedric Glover vetoed the ordinance last week, meaning the Council’s meeting Tuesday provides an opportunity to override the veto. That would require a 5-2 margin. Glover and through his appointee Chief Henry Whitehorn have at various times have raised three objections to it.

One, that it is not a comprehensive effort including boosts in pay for firemen as well, doesn’t really matter. Wooley’s argument is that a crisis exists among police ranks in that once officers gain experience other jurisdictions with higher pay attract away these officers. Whitehorn disputes that this is much of a factor which is perhaps why he has said he will at some future point present his own plan for the police department without any rush, and perhaps this would be allied with a larger effort to cover all public safety personnel. But if retention is a problem, it’s better to address it sooner rather than later.

Another objection comes from the vetoed ordinance’s pay grade structure which causes the compression. That is, with little monetary reward for being promoted, upward personnel movement may be delayed or unsought in order for officers to retain benefits (such as increased flexibility in work schedules, both with the city and any contracting they do) realized by being senior officers in lower ranks. This could be solved by apportioning more equally the raises either by adding more to the upper ranks or shifting some from lower to higher ranks. However, the first approach would increase the amount of money committed, and the second to some extent would defeat the retention purpose of the raise.

There is some validity to this argument, although while it might slow progression within Shreveport ranks, it would not stop it and it could attract more experienced officers from outside the department. Adding money would solve for it but seems out as an option because it is based upon being financed from a shade under $2 million existing in budgted longevity pay that would be rolled into the new pay matrix and, most crucially, about $1.3 million left over from unfilled positions. Any additions would require cuts from other areas of the budget.

This is what Glover has argued, while Wooley insisted this pot of money can be used without any budget repercussions. But this approach would create bigger problems in the future. If the roughly 5 percent of authorized positions are cannibalized for the raise, then future hiring would require budget expansion. And it seems that if the city thinks 541 positions (plus 20 more if Glover’s budget plans are followed) are needed to protect adequately the city, then scalping these positions implies the police will be undermanned.

This is the most compelling reason why Glover’s veto should be upheld, the erasure of any flexibility for budgeting police force levels. Still, one could argue that if Glover wants to hire 20 additional officers, surely that request could be mutated into a smaller pay raise along Wooley’s lines for the other 541 spots.

Yet here lies the real tragedy of this issue. As I noted previously, the budget Glover has produced is, to be charitable, optimistic. Chances are, given the slowing national economy and fading of the Haynesville Shale bonanza, revenues will not even each their reduced levels and expenses could be higher. In other words, Glover vetoed the ordinance mainly because he knows it will be hard enough to meet his proposed budget with no room to shift any monies around because the cuts he threatened if the ordinance passed are likely to occur in some form even without its passage.

This raise simply never had a chance without deeper cuts being made in city services. That means the divisiveness generated around this issue – pitting officer vs. officer, elevating their hopes and then dashing them with different politicians blaming others for the failure – didn’t have to happen. While Wooley comes out best regardless of what happens – a champion of the police – the sad fact is Wooley either pushed the conflict precisely to score political points or, as the budget situation deteriorated from August to October, he lacked the political astuteness to know now was not the time to forge ahead with it because of the consequences of conflict.

For councilors who voted for the raise to compensate for this mistake, joined by Glover who needs to redeem himself for a budget that tests the boundaries of optimism, they need to find ways to chop the budget even further, taking the saved revenues and putting them into reserves. Thus, if things turn out as Glover hoped reserves will rise from their dangerously low levels, and if not there won’t be any mid-year budget crisis. A successful override would make this cooperation all the more imperative.

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