Police Contract Debacle Threatens to Engulf Persing
Last year, faced with a strong opponent in his race for re-election, a desperate Mayor Persing sold out the city, giving in to every pension demand made by his police department. He certainly wanted their contract off the table in the worst possible way, to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2005, when dissatisfied local officers played a significant role in helping secure Jesse Woodring’s primary victory.
Persing was terrified at the consequences of losing again, this time to Joe Bartello. Having built up his lucrative softball business over the years, and making a small fortune from the questionable use of taxpayer-funded city property and other assets, he had to do whatever it took to retain control. For him, the alternative was unthinkable. (see A Tale of Two Cities)
At the City meeting of June 10th 2013, Persing rushed through the vote on police contract approval in just over 2 minutes, without allowing any time for public discussion. According to the official minutes, Councilman Eister thanked then Councilman Todd Snyder for spending time with the financials so a contract could be passed. Councilman Snyder said he “thought the contract was fair for everyone and he is happy with the results”.
The Pensiongate scandal, now that it has broken, has left our hapless mayor floundering for excuses. Even without the potential financial disaster faced by the City from huge and unsustainable increases to police pensions (increases which according to City Treasurer Kevin Troup will “break the bank”), his profligate administration is already $400,000 over budget for 2014, and also deeply in debt, a situation not helped by Jim Eister’s extravagant and totally unnecessary Phase 3 extension of the Riverfront Project – a project which has yet to show any financial return for Sunbury. (see Fiddler on the Wall)
Just to balance the books for 2015 would mean a 6 or 7 mil city tax raise – around 30% more than what citizens are paying now, but the City only have 2 mil available before they hit their ceiling. They could go to court and get the ceiling raised, but that is exactly what Shamokin did, and now they are bankrupt.
Joe Bartello did warn about this during his campaign, but people were taken in by lies and propaganda, and scared by Persing’s dirty politics, such as his disgraceful eve of poll claims that Bartello would defund the fire companies and (ironically) close down the police department.
If only they had listened . . !
Negotiations for the new police contract had been underway for over a year, since January 2012. Officer Steve Bennick, Corporal (soon to be chief) Bradley Hare and Sergeant Christopher Blase formed the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) negotiating team. Facing them across the table were Persing, Eister and City Solicitor Mike Apfelbaum.
As is normal practice the police representatives put forward what amounted to a wish list, presumably fully expecting some hard bargaining before meeting the City somewhere in the middle. That is how negotiations would normally proceed. However, they had not allowed for the Persing factor. The Mayor gave away the farm! No doubt, in hindsight, they are wishing they had asked for even more, as in that climate, whatever demands they had put on the table would have been granted.
It is the legal responsibility of the Chief Administrative Officer of the pension fund to seek an actuarial cost estimate BEFORE the adoption of any modification. This estimate must include a comparison of annual financial requirements before and after the proposed modification, and is a safeguard to insure that no modifications are adopted which have the potential to jeopardize the long-term survival of the plan and the payment of all benefits due under its provisions.
At the City meeting on Monday 10th November, Councilman Shipman was unable to identify who this person might be, although we suspect it could be Mayor Persing. Did this person contact the pension fund actuary, Conrad Siegel, for such a report? It is impossible to believe that any actuary would give the green light to such reckless and ill thought out proposals, and if the actuary did state his reservations, why were they subsequently ignored?
What was the role of the fund administrators – the Northumberland National Bank represented by Scott Heintzelman? Did they accept the proposals? Did they carry out due diligence to insure legal requirements had been fulfilled? Were they even consulted, or were they bullied by Persing to stand aside and leave him to do whatever he wanted?
What about Mike Apfelbaum – as City Solicitor he should have been responsible for the drafting of the agreement? Did he do this work, or did Persing do it all by himself? If, as claimed by Persing, some of the wording is “not clear”, then no doubt Apfelbaum will gain billable hours as he attempts to take the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Finally Councilman Jim Eister was also a member of the police pension negotiating committee. What exactly was his role in the unfolding debacle? Did he support Persing or was he merely giving him enough rope with which to hang himself? He certainly made a very good job of hiding any reservations he may have had.
Retire on Double Your Salary and Keep Working Too!
Exactly how has it come about that a retiring police officer can expect to receive almost double his basic salary in his pension payment, and can also remain in employment under the Drop Program for up to 5 years after his official retirement date? Steve Bennick, for example, with his projected $108,000 annual pension entitlement could, with overtime, rake in around $200,000 per annum, and were he to remain for the maximum period allowed he could over that time gross up to $1 million as compensation for the inconvenience of having to work!
Bennick had exercised his contractual right, to add to his final month’s salary some 240 hours of compensatory time he had accumulated and this, along with the overtime he worked that month, formed the basis for his pension calculation. Persing, claiming contract ambiguity, refused to allow the addition of this time. According to his interpretation, it is the City’s call whether to use either the final month or the final year as a baseline when determining pension entitlement. Bennick disputed this and filed a grievance against the City.
The Mayor was conspicuous by his absence from the 10th November meeting, having decided that he had more pressing business to attend to in Reno. Councilman Shipman took the helm, and announced that the City had refused Bennick’s grievance, declaring later that he was only entitled to a pension based on 50% of his total earnings for his final year.
Arbitration looms. A Bennick victory would leave the Mayor with no recourse except to take the FOP to court. Does he have the cojones for such a battle? The FOP would be especially concerned by Persing’s attempts to reinterpret, rewrite, or unilaterally revoke what is a signed legal document. Such a precedent could be used to disadvantage their members’ contracts throughout the Commonwealth.
The Little Dictator
Under the terms of the new contract, the Mayor, a truck dispatcher by profession, assumes responsibility for the following areas of police operations:
- Hiring of officers
- Police disciplinary matters
- All police contract negotiations
- Purchase of police vehicles
- Arrange for acting chief when regular chief not available
- Policy changes
- Lateral transfers of time served elsewhere
- Longevity payments
- Contractual overtime
- Compensatory time
- Bereavement leave
- Personal leave
- Seniority related issues
- Vacation time
- Carrying over vacations to following year
- Residency requirements – all officers hired since 2009
- Uniforms and police equipment
- Outside employment requests
- Random drug testing
- Probationary officers – pay, health care, pension, sick leave
This huge list begs the question – exactly why do we need a Chief of Police? What responsibilities are left? How could anyone happily work under such tyrannical micro management, especially when it is being performed by a tactless and overbearing bully, and one totally lacking in qualification, experience or direct knowledge of professional policing!
Bleak Future for Sunburians
The reasons for the firing of our chief, Steve Mazzeo, are now becoming clearer. Certainly they had nothing to do with disingenuous claims of mysterious “personnel issues”. It would appear that Persing wanted to make him the scapegoat for this contract debacle, even though Mazzeo, as the senior professional police officer employed by the City at that time, was not part of the City negotiating team, and was totally frozen out of any discussions.
The cunning plan depended upon Mazzeo moving out of town and not being in a position to answer back. Well, unfortunately for Persing and his cronies, Steve Mazzeo is still very much around, working as a patrolman and with no intention of leaving a city he now regards as home.
With a potential annual support cost of the police pension fund estimated at $1.5 million, the City is headed towards bankruptcy. It doesn’t take a genius to see this. Cops who retire will not be replaced. Under such levels of attrition, the police department will soon be unable to function, let alone guarantee the security of our city or the safety of its citizens. Criminal activity will soar. Neighboring municipalities can’t be expected to take up the slack either. Most of them, like Sunbury, are already running undermanned and underfunded police departments.
Meantime property taxes will rise to stratospheric levels, and Sunbury property values will fall in the opposite direction. This is shaping up to be Persing’s legacy – the total ruination of Sunbury. Even compared to his many previous administrative disasters, this is going to be the granddaddy of them all!
During his victory speech last November, Persing made his infamous declaration about taking out the garbage. Well, now it really is time to take out the garbage. Sunbury will not survive another 3 years of such “leadership”.
He should, for possibly the first time in his life, do the right thing, and resign from office immediately, while there is still a chance of something being salvaged from the wreckage of his disastrous regime.