Vancouver, police union will start mediation Monday

Pay raises, random drug testing policy are sticking points

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver's offer to police guild

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Apart by about $8 million in salaries — and a new random drug testing policy — Vancouver and its police union are set to start contract mediation Monday.

The city and the Vancouver Police Guild, which represents about 180 rank-and-file officers, have been unable to agree on a new contract. The old one expired at the end of 2011. The sides agreed to a third-party mediator to attempt to unite the two proposed contracts.

But that may be tricky: While the two sides are stuck on the size of salary increases and other financial issues, if the battle between Portland and its police union is any indication, the random drug testing policy may be the biggest battle.

Portland and its police union sparred over the policy, which the city implemented against union wishes in January. Union members filed a

grievance asking the city to “cease and desist,” objecting to the cost, and also to the inclusion of steroids in the testing.

Vancouver’s random drug test policy seems couched from Portland’s policy, with both cities using the terminology that police and administration have a “joint desire to achieve a workforce that is 100 percent drug free.”

At least half of all officers would be randomly chosen for testing each year. The test would screen officers for use of marijuana, opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and phencyclidine or PCP. Anabolic steroids could also be included.

No word was included in the contract language about who would pay for the testing, or how it would be conducted.

Many major police departments, including Boston and New York City, have such testing.

The union’s own proposal makes no mention of support or opposition to random drug testing. Representatives for the police union did not return calls or emails for comment this week.

Pay increases

Also on the table are salary increases. The city would like a three-year contract that includes no raise this year, a 1.5 percent increase in 2013, and a 2 percent increase in 2014.

The union is asking for 2.7 percent this year, and raises in 2013 and 2014 that are equivalent to the area’s consumer price index, with a minimum of 2.5 percent and a maximum of 5.5 percent.

Also in the union’s proposal is a new pay raise for longevity, or “competency pay.” Those who complete training would qualify, and see their pay go up based on years of service, starting with a 2 percent raise at five years, and maxing out with a 10 percent raise after 25 years of service. Many of the city’s officers are at the top of the pay scale and no longer earn step increases.

The average 2010 salary for a police guild member was $84,316, including overtime, shift differentials, vacation and other payouts.

City Manager Eric Holmes said this week that the police union’s desires are untenable and do not match the austere agreements the city has struck with its other bargaining units, including the firefighters union.

“It’s inconsistent with what we’ve settled with our other bargaining units,” Holmes said. “And it’s inconsistent with the city’s ability to pay.”

In a two-year contract forged in 2010, officers agreed to no cost of living or market raises. Some step increases remained in place.

“Obviously the city is trying to constrain costs so we can continue to provide services as best we can,” Holmes said.

The city and union do appear to be in agreement on moving the guild to a separate insurance pool, that would limit Vancouver’s liability to 5 percent increases a year. Traditionally, health care costs have been climbing in the double digits each year, placing a major strain on the city’s budget.

Other points of difference include disciplinary matters: The guild is asking that the city put a strict deadline for completion of internal affairs investigations -- which have been known to drag on for months -- and to extend greater privacy to officers exonerated of policy violations.

Both Holmes and city Human Resources Director Elizabeth Gotelli stressed the tentative nature of proposals at this stage.

“These proposals represent the starting point for our discussion with the mediator,” Gotelli wrote in an email. “It would be premature to speculate at this point about the proposals or areas of agreement. …Both the City and the Guild are approaching this from a standpoint of collaboration, and look forward to having the mediator assisting us in finding common ground.”

If the two sides can’t find resolution through the mediation process, the contract would go before a state arbitrator, whose ruling would be binding.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.