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Mayor’s bonus plan doesn’t add up

January 7, 2019

Tony Trujillo, president of the police officers’ union in Santa Fe, might be a decent enough detective. But he’s one lousy spin doctor.

Trujillo has publicly complained about Mayor Alan Webber’s proposal to hand bonuses to unionized officers for doing nothing more than staying on the city payroll for six more months.

Instead of licking his chops or turning a cartwheel, Trujillo did something foolish. He carped. The mayor’s offer was downright insulting, Trujillo said.

Everybody should be fortunate enough to receive the sort of “insult” that Webber has in mind for police officers.

The free-spending mayor wants to offer retention bonuses of $4,700 apiece to about 128 officers.

That amounts to a total expense of $600,000. Webber said the cash is available in this year’s city budget. In his view, giving it to police officers would be a good-faith gesture to show them they are appreciated.

To collect the bonus, all the officers would have to do is stay on the police force through June. Then, money in hand, they could retire or resign to take a another job.

Webber’s idea is a terrific deal for police officers but a questionable one for taxpayers.

The police union’s contract with the city expires in June. Negotiations for a new agreement could commence any time, and the union will want pay increases for its members that exceed cost-of-living raises.

By paying bonuses to those whose only commitment is to stay on the police force for six months, Webber is doing next to nothing to stabilize the department or recruit good officers.

It would be smarter and more frugal to pay an annual bonus to officers who remain with the department throughout the life of the next contract. This would guard against officers staying on the force just long enough to pocket that $4,700 bonus.

Webber, in a column he wrote Sunday for The New Mexican, said he decided on his plan for retention bonuses after he and City Manager Erik Litzenberg met with police officers.

“We wanted to listen to our men and women in uniform — and hear their concerns in their own voices,” Webber wrote.

Whatever was said led Webber to conceive the idea of draining money from the budget now to pay bonuses to officers who might be gone by summertime.

Trujillo, despite his clumsy complaints about a mayor who plans to reward officers for nothing more than a six-month commitment, makes one good point about Webber’s plan.

The mayor wants to reopen negotiations on the existing contract to pay the bonuses. But in Webber’s and Trujillo’s view, there is nothing to negotiate. Webber has already established the amount of the proposed bonuses.

Union members will meet this week to discuss the mayor’s offer. They will jump at it. After all, how many workers in Santa Fe are getting bonuses of any sort, much less a sweetheart deal like the one Webber has concocted?

The City Council also would have to approve the bonuses. That should be a tougher sell for Webber, provided that the eight part-time councilors take a hard look at his proposal. Their obligation is to make sure the city negotiates a fair contract with the union, thereby strengthening the police department for the long term.

Police officers have a difficult and demanding job, so I don’t begrudge them a raise. And there would be more money for them if Webber hadn’t larded the city payroll with administrators.

He created the job of chief of staff after taking office last March. It went to a dutiful member of his campaign team at a cost to taxpayers of $86,600.

Then his administration spent another $95,000 for a director of constituent and council services. The only reason this hire didn’t inflame people was that the deputy city manager, making $132,600 annually, resigned after a being part of a shadowy deal. It would have given double-digit raises to 37 select city employees working on a technology upgrade.

Webber and the City Council also paid Litzenberg, a rookie city manager, a higher salary than his more experienced predecessor.

Litzenberg is making $155,000 a year. His salary will increase to $170,000 on July 1, start of the city’s budget year.

That will be a raise of 9.6 percent for Litzenberg, who went from fire chief to city manager.

No doubt plenty of cops on the beat will say they do their job just as well as Litzenberg does his. On that basis, they could ask for the same 9.6 percent raise the city manager will receive.

If Webber really wants to hold onto good police officers, a one-time bonus isn’t the answer.

Making public safety a higher priority than a bloated central office might be.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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