Lakewood dangles carrot for PO cops

The lure of higher pay and plush benefits may be too much for Port Orchard to compete with. As of this week, at least two and up to five of the city’s police officers have applied for permanent positions at Lakewood’s new police force.

Lakewood, a Tacoma suburb that incorporated in 1996, recently decided to cancel its contract with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which had been providing law enforcement to the area since it incorporated. Last year the cost of the contract apparently got too high and Lakewood decided to go it alone.

Because the area is densely populated and has known crime problems, the nascent department is trying to put together a startup staff of about 100 — 68 officers plus support staff.

To sweeten the deal and help attract experienced officers from neighboring jurisdictions, Lakewood has promised to let each new hire retain his or her tenure place in line for retirement and seniority. This, said Port Orchard Police Chief Al Townsend, is a major perk.

“You can go there with all of your time in Washington state law enforcement,” he said. “Usually, when you leave your department, you’re starting over.”

In addition, Lakewood is offering approximately $10,000 more a year than Port Orchard currently pays its officers.

As a larger department, Townsend continued, it will also likely have more chance for officers to advance. Right now, Port Orchard offers no ranks between sergeant and chief.

This, however, may change.

“When I first got here, it might not have been necessary, but I think we’re approaching that point,” Townsend said.

Complicating matters, the city still has not reached an agreement on the officers’ three-year union contract. The last contract expired in October and Townsend said the matter is still under negotiation.

Because most of the applying officers have not formally announced their plans and the rest are currently undergoing the Lakewood interview process, Townsend said no one was yet willing to talk on the record about their concerns. However, he said he has heard a lot of frustration from his staff regarding the contract and the protracted negotiations.

Without a contract, Townsend said, the officers can’t tell whether staying will be worth their while.

Townsend wants the city to get the contract signed and stop the “what-iffing” that may be spurring his staff to apply elsewhere.

Moreover, Townsend said he hopes the city takes this incident as incentive to make sure Port Orchard is a competitive employer in the law enforcement field. Losing staff is hard, he said, but attracting top-grade officers is even harder if the city’s pay and benefits scale falls below the area average.

“I think it’s good for the city to see that there are some differences,” Townsend said. “They need to make sure they’re comparing apples to apples.”

Port Orchard Mayor Kim Abel said she doesn’t believe the delay is the result of any squabbling between the city and the union. The city attorney typically handles union negotiations and she said he told her it’s been more a matter of conflicting schedules rather than conflicting viewpoints.

Abel said she couldn’t comment on the negotiations or what is left to be sorted out — both the city and the union tend not to want to “show their hands” ahead of time, she said.

“I know that they’re getting close,” Abel said. “I believe it should be really soon.”

In any case, she added, the city has a policy of applying all new contracts retroactively to the time the previous contract expired. That means even though negotiations have lasted several months, those affected by the contract will be reimbursed any extra pay or benefits they should have received as of October.

At the moment, Townsend isn’t sure how big an effect Lakewood’s offer will have on the department. He said he knows for sure two officers have applied and heard rumors of at least two others as well.

Townsend also suspects at least one of his sergeants will apply — he said although Lakewood’s application window for regular officers has closed, higher ranking officers may still get in.

If Lakewood accepts and the city officers decide to leave, Townsend said Port Orchard will have to pay out a lot of overtime while it looks for replacements. Because the department only supports 19 officers, the loss of even two could be substantial.

In addition, he said, even after the city hires new recruits, it still may have to pay to send them to the police academy for six months at full salary — that salary on top of the overtime still required to cover the new officer’s shift while he or she is away.

“There’s other costs that people don’t really take into consideration,” Townsend said. “We don’t hire many officers, so we want our officers to be the best we can get.”

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