Hiring freeze shrinks Milton police force
The city had grown by 1,000 residents since the last time the department added a patrol officer in 1992. Traffic counts had also increased, and police faced more responsibilities, said City Administrator Todd Schmidt.
But one year later, not only has the additional officer not been hired, but the department has one fewer officer than last year.
The reason? A hiring freeze put in place by the city in an effort to eliminate a retiree health benefit. City and union officials say the benefit could be the key issue in contract negotiations.
“It could be the single most important benefit,” said Officer Brad Smith, union representative for the Milton police.
The city council froze hiring on all union positions in January after commissioning a benefits study. The study showed the city’s share of “gap” insurance—insurance for retirees who are too young for Medicare—rising from $14,000 in 2005 to $314,000 in 2024.
“If that type of benefit exists and remains in the future, the cost of that benefit is going to go on a curve that’s not going to end,” Schmidt said.
The city hopes to negotiate the benefit out of union contracts for new hires. The contracts expire at year’s end.
So far, the freeze has only affected the police. The department wasn’t able to replace an officer who resigned in the fall or hire the additional officer approved in the 2007 budget, leaving its staff at seven officers, not including the chief and two administrative positions.
Schmidt said the freeze has not affected public safety because Chief Tom Gilland has made up for the missing officers through part-time positions and overtime work.
Through the end of November, the department had spent $51,000 in part-time and overtime wages, $2,000 more than it spent in all of 2006 and far more than the $29,000 it budgeted.
Although the police department doesn’t track response times, Schmidt doesn’t believe they have been affected, he said.
But Smith is not convinced the freeze hasn’t affected police response or officer safety.
“We’re still down 4,000 hours a year and two full-time positions,” he said. “We have experienced some delay times, but I don’t know that we can say safety has been compromised at this point.”
The freeze and the retiree benefit promise to be contentious issues in the city’s upcoming contract negotiations.
Although the contracts expire at the end of the year, the city has delayed negotiations as the police department considered changing unions. The department voted in November to leave the Teamsters and join the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, Smith said.
Even if the freeze ends with the negotiations, the officers probably wouldn’t be hired until halfway through the year, Schmidt said. He budgeted the two positions for 6 months each in 2008.
“I wouldn’t say that (the freeze) is intended to put pressure on the police department, but I certainly thinks it makes clear what the priorities of the council are as we go into this negotiation,” he said.
Meanwhile, the police union must balance its need for officers with its desire to maintain retirement benefits, Smith said.
“We want to work through it as quickly as we can to unfreeze those two positions,” he said.
ABOUT THE BENEFIT
The city of Milton currently offers two retirement benefits for its employees: a payout of accumulated leave, which retirees often put toward medical expenses, and “gap” insurance, which pays 85 percent of insurance premiums for retirees until they are eligible for Medicare.
The city has already eliminated gap insurance for new, non-union hires. It hopes to eliminate the benefit for union hires in the upcoming contract negotiations, said Todd Schmidt, city administrator.
A study commissioned by the city shows its share of gap insurance will grow from $14,000 in 2005 to $314,000 in 2024 if it continues offering the benefit to new hires.
“The problem with the gap insurance has everything to do with the liability the city faces,” Schmidt said.
For example, a police officer hired tomorrow at age 25 would be eligible to retire at age 50. The city’s liability for that officer’s gap insurance would be $500,000, Schmidt said.
Even if the city eliminates the benefit, it will not see financial results right away because current employees would still be eligible, said Alderwoman Sharon Rozelle, head of the personnel and finance committee.
“It’s looking into the future,” she said.
It’s also possible the city might negotiate for current employees to pay a higher percentage of the premiums when they start receiving gap insurance, Schmidt said. Now, retirees pay 15 percent.
The city would maintain its commitment to retirees through the accumulated leave payout, which often ends up in five digits, Schmidt said.
“We believe that it’s a significant benefit that still shows the city’s commitment to managing retiree health care costs,” he said.