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Police try for higher salaries

With the contract between the city and its police officers set to expire Thursday, both sides remain at odds over salary.

An impasse is likely if the two sides can't agree on the terms of a three-year contract. Several issues are unresolved, but pay is the biggest.

Officers say they are underpaid compared to other Pinellas County law enforcement.

"It's the consensus of the officers that they want to be the highest paid agency in the county," said Bill LauBach, executive director of the union, the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association. "They do the most work. They've got the most crime."

Officers want a 9 percent raise the first year and 7 percent in the second and third years. Under that deal, the cost to the city would be $2.1-million more in base officer salaries in the first year.

The city's counter offer: 3.5 percent raises in the first and second years of the contract and a 3 percent raise in the third year. That would cost the city at least $822,332 more in officer base salaries the first year.

Council chairman Bill Foster said the city cannot afford the officers' demand.

"I've talked to officers, and I do express a genuine concern that they be compensated with a package that is competitive in the market," Foster said.

"But I've also said to them, "You're coming at us with extremely high numbers. Show me in the budget where that money is going to come from. What department in the city do you think warrants cutting back so we can actually come up with these figures?' "

A negotiation session between the union and city labor officials is set for Oct. 7. It is illegal for officers to strike, but they can picket on their own time, say police officials.

The union, which represents 439 officers and detectives, originally requested the largest pay raise ever _ a 10 percent hike each year for three years. The city rejected that.

Police administrators say they want the contract resolved quickly because low pay has been among the top reasons officers have quit the department in recent years.

The department led police agencies statewide in attrition in 2001 and 2002, so a new contract could either fuel or slow departures, union officials said.

"I've encouraged the mayor that we need to be competitive with other agencies," said police Chief Chuck Harmon.

Entry level officers in St. Petersburg currently earn $34,810. A 9 percent increase would raise that to $37,942.

That would put them over cities such as Clearwater which now pay its rookies $36,551 and Largo, where starting officers earn $35,000.

Through August of this year, 27 officers have resigned from the St. Petersburg Police Department. Many quit during initial training, but nine left to join other police agencies.

SALARIES

Current entry level salaries for some Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies:

Tampa: $38,126

Clearwater: $36,551

Largo: $35,000

St. Petersburg: $34,810

Tarpon Springs: $34,785

University of South Florida St. Petersburg : $34,721

Pinellas Park: $34,424

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office: $34,099

Gulfport: $34,000

Pinellas County Schools Police: $31,000

Source: Pinellas Police Standards Council and Tampa Police Department. Figures are from a March survey.

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