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State hearing officer enters contract talks

After months without an agreement in contract talks, the city and its unions brought in a state hearing officer Wednesday to intervene. While the hearing was going on at City Hall, across town the union put up a billboard warning people that their safety could not be guaranteed because police and firefighters are underpaid, understaffed and overworked.

The hearing officer will make a recommendation to the Clearwater City Commission as to how much rank-and-file police officers should earn and what kind of contract the city should agree to.

But even then, the commission has the final say.

If commissioners disagree with the recommendations, the officers will have to take what they can get this year and begin negotiations again for a three-year contract next year.

The argument boils down to how much the officers are going to be paid and how raises will be determined.

Officers want a 6 percent increase and the city has offered them 1{ percent, which officers call "insulting."

The city wants to give merit raises based on performance, but officers say that performance-based evaluations will lead to ticketing quotas and would be unfair because it would be based largely on personality.

The city has cut back on police overtime and court time, so, union president Peter Fire said, the raise amounts to nothing.

"They've cut back 1 percent on court time, and the 1{ percent won't start 'til January and it's not retroactive," he said. "What they're talking about here is a loss."

Police Chief Sid Klein testified that morale in the department is low right now because of the 1{ percent offer and will remain low if that's what the officers get.

City staff has argued that officers also get a 5 percent merit increase, but union officials say 63 percent of officers last year were ineligible for the raise.

Assistant City Manager Kathy Rice said she was glad that both sides made their points at the hearing and conducted themselves professionally.

"We're making progress," she said.