South Miami

South Miami cops reject 6.2 percent pay raise — not enough money?

South Miami City Manager Steven Alexander walks in front of the South Miami Police Department in April.
South Miami City Manager Steven Alexander walks in front of the South Miami Police Department in April. El Nuevo Herald File

More than 30 South Miami police officers have rejected a pay raise. City officials wonder whether their 6.2 percent raise offer wasn’t enough money — or whether the officers want to change unions for future negotiations.

The decision was made after members of the South Miami Police Department, represented by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), and the city manager ended months of talks.

The department’s “upper unit,” consisting of lieutenants and captains, accepted the city’s offer and will receive a 6.2 percent pay increase on Oct. 1. That deal runs through September 2018. A small group of city administrative staff, represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), will also receive a similar raise. The rest of the police department’s officers and sergeants, in the “lower unit,” will remain at its current salaries.

In 2013, South Miami officers received pay raises for the first time in more than five years. City Manager Steven Alexander said he was looking to do the same this year.

“Now I was ready to do it again with a really substantial rate,” Alexander said. “The officers would have gotten between now and the budget, a 6.2 percent increase. That was where we did the deal with AFSCME. Basically now, since they’ve turned that down, we are going to roll that benefit to our regular employees, what we were going to spend on our police. The first time they’ve gotten an increase in a really long time was 2013. I was ready to do another really strong increase for them and they turned it down.”

“It’s hard to understand why they would do that except for just greed,” he said.

PBA President John Rivera did not respond to several interview requests. But he did speak at the city’s June 7 commission meeting during public remarks.

“Many of you know that the last few months we’ve been engaged with the city manager in attempting to reach negotiations,” Rivera said at the meeting. “I will tell you that the manager is absolutely loyal to the city and your administration and the residents of the city. And at the same time he has been a pleasure to work with. Often times, labor and management, just because of the opposing sides, tends to kind of not get along. We did disagree but we agreed to disagree in a professional manner. You should be very proud of your manager and your chief.”

As of Oct. 1, starting salary for a South Miami police officer in 2015 was $46,000. The top officer earned $69,816.33. Sergeants earned as much as $88,351.75. South Miami’s average pay for an officer was $57,908.17. The average officer salary in Miami-Dade County was $57,194.11. The average county starting salary was $46,525.19.

The lower unit is now voting whether to switch union representation from the PBA to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), or not have a union. Florida law prohibits the officers from going on strike. The police election regarding union representation began Aug. 2 and is expected to last through the month.

“When contract negotiations began, South Miami Police salaries were at the average for municipalities in Miami-Dade County, and 10 percent above salaries of county police,” Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “The city manager offered our police an extraordinarily generous contract that would dramatically lower their individual pension deductions without lowering their pension benefits, increase their salaries by 6.2 percent, guarantee them cost-of-living increases matching the consumer price index, and they could become eligible for step raises on top of that.”

“This offer is stunningly beneficial for the employees — I've never seen a contract that good,” Stoddard said. “The upper police unit jumped on the contract, as did the ASCFME employees. The City Commission approved both contracts and both groups got immediate pay raises as promised. The lower police unit turned down the contract by a vote of 1 to 2, imagining that a different union could get them a better deal. One officer involved in the negotiation said they would turn down a 40 percent raise if it were offered — because this negotiation was all about the fight.”

The mayor was perplexed by the logic of the officers.

“They get the contract offer of a lifetime and they want scorched earth,” Stoddard said. “In what negotiation universe does that make any sense?”

South Miami reported 776 crimes last year and is on pace for 537 crimes this year, it lowest number since 1991. SMPD chief Rene Landa was hired in 2013. Landa and Alexander have implemented a community policing effort, prioritizing crime prevention, diversity and sensitivity awareness, and friendships with the city’s residents. Those same residents held a police appreciation day on July 28 at the Gibson-Bethel community center.

“I guess they think they can find a better deal through negotiations, which I don’t understand,” Alexander said. “We are already paying our police at an above-average rate, which is pretty unusual since we are a below-average-size city, both in terms of population and in terms of budget. We are sort of paying them both where we should be already.

“We were willing to make it stronger because we do think we have a really good police force,” Alexander added. “We were willing to raise the rate of pay for them, but we were raising it to the max amount I thought I could sell to the commission based on budget, etc. … Apparently they are going to try to squeeze more out of it and frankly I don’t think there is any place else to go, in terms of benefits, pay, that sort of thing.”