According to Phoenix mayoral candidates Peggy Neely, Wes Gullett and Jennifer Wright, the unions are in control, and our city is under siege.
Our cops are overpaid and underworked. We have fat to trim, but we can’t because the council and our current mayor are under the spell of unions, specifically the public safety union, PLEA (Phoenix Law Enforcement Association).
But wait. Isn’t Mark Spencer the head of PLEA? Mark Spencer, as in the archenemy of Mayor Gordon and thorn in the side of former Public Safety Manager Jack Harris? So, in other words, Neely, Gullett and Wright are claiming that the very individuals who are feuding with the union are the ones under their control?
Yes, this is one of several ridiculous theories these three candidates are throwing out as reasons the city is in debt and in need of a major overhaul.
It’s incredulous to hear Peggy Neely, the former council member who sided with the union and called for Chief Harris’ head after accusations of inflated kidnapping numbers, leading the charge against labor organizations and decrying the “union boss” she backed. Harris resigned his post, and the kidnapping numbers were later determined to be underreported. To my knowledge, Ms. Neely has yet to apologize for making the accusation that the former Chief knowingly misreported statistics in order to receive a federal grant.
Jack Harris’ resignation was perhaps the biggest “win” the union could have asked for, and they have individuals like Peggy Neely to thank. But the unions, typically supportive of Tea Party candidates, have realized that these same individuals they’ve been supporting are now blasting the very membership they represent.
Why? One assumes it has a little something to do with the fact that candidates such as Neely and Gullett have staked their win on defining public safety unions as the problem with government. And while there are several issues PLEA and I disagree on, I find the “blame the unions” argument absurd.
It’s true that the city’s single biggest expense is public safety wages. But shouldn’t that be every major city’s biggest expense? Would we want our cities spending more on garbage collection than public safety? While a utopian world would demand larger expenses for parks and rec and public libraries, urban reality demands more from public safety.
And let’s address the raises and bonuses Neely and Gullett are up in arms over. First off, the “raises” are not raises nor are the “bonuses” bonuses.
Like the military, public safety jobs have a pay structure different from the private sector. The reasoning? Police officers take on inherently dangerous jobs with the promise of benefits that compensate them for this risk. Public safety employees, much the same as military personnel, are guaranteed a pension, regardless of market fluctuations. They are also promised longevity pay and the right to bargain for wages.
The longevity pay is an incentive for officers to stay on the force longer. It makes sense that we would pay officers with additional time on the street more than freshmen cops. Veteran officers have the type of beat knowledge one can only gain with time on the job. This is an important part of community policing.
When Phoenix police officers agreed to give back 3.2% of previously negotiated wages, they did so with the understanding that longevity pay and other contractual wage agreements would not be taken away. They are not making more now than they were making before, and they are still taking furlough days.
How council members such as Neely and DiCiccio can claim they had no knowledge of longevity pay is baffling. These types of contractual agreements happen year after year. If Peggy Neely, a ten-year council member had no understanding of this, then we should all be questioning her knowledge of city government.
My guess is that Ms. Neely did understand this but has chosen to twist it into political pandering for the sake of votes. Like Mr. Gullett and Ms. Wright, she sees the political benefit in blaming deficits on overpaid cops instead of a downturn in the economy. Though these three candidates all state that public safety is important to them, they also condemn raises that are not raises and offer little in the way of solutions.
If public safety workers earn too much, what would be a reasonable wage? $20,000? $30,000? The last time public safety workers received a raise, it was commensurate with what other public safety workers make in similar sized cities. This has since decreased by 3.2%, not including mandatory furlough days that are still required.
Perhaps we should pay our officers based on results? Consider this: crime has decreased significantly over the course of the past decade while our population has increased. We have lost hundreds of officers due to retirement and a hiring freeze, leaving the department to do more with less. Those are some pretty impressive results!
Instead of thanking the department for a job well done, we have mayoral candidates blasting benefits, misrepresenting wages, and creating an environment of hostility toward those charged with protecting us. This seems counter to what we would want as our city’s image and counter to what we would expect from city leaders.
I do not believe our community shares Mr. Gullett or Ms. Neely or Ms. Wright’s feelings toward public safety. This is a community that appreciates and respects its officers. I witnessed this when I worked in the media and again after my husband’s death. It’s a huge part of why I live here and why I love this city.
Our next mayor will need to work with our public safety workers to continue the progress made in keeping our neighborhoods safe. Let’s stop using public safety as a tool for blame, and stop painting unions as monsters. We should all come to the table with respect instead of animosity – and that includes leaders and unions.
If we wish to change “politics as usual” then we need to start with candidates who will focus the debate on policy versus personality. Misrepresenting public safety is no way to run a campaign and no way to run a city. This community expects and deserves better.