COLUMBIA — Labor representatives brought requests from city employees before the Columbia City Council on Monday night, asking for raises, wireless Internet, pay for weight training and more. Aware of the pinched city budget, union representatives tried to keep financial requests to a minimum.
The most forceful plea came from representatives of Columbia police officers and firefighters, who said their employees are tired of subjective promotions and want to adopt an objective, merit-based promotion process.
As new Police Chief Kenneth Burton looked on, police representatives said they also want officers to be required to pass fitness tests and to get paid for fitness training, both for health reasons and because statistics show that flabby officers use inappropriate force more often.
Looking for diversions during the down time spent at the station, fire department representatives requested wireless Internet connections in each fire station. In keeping with the evening's frugal atmosphere, the union offered to pay for the luxury item out of its own coffers.
City Manager Bill Watkins called those requests and dozens of others made during the pre-council meeting "pretty darn reasonable, for the most part." He said that a staff committee would meet to process requests that would cost money but that the council could begin considering other requests immediately.
Here are a few highlights:
Columbia Police Officers Association
- Their union representatives were clear: Columbia police officers and firefighters are tired of being passed over for promotions that they believe go to less-qualified candidates. "Our No. 1 priority is establishing an objective selection process," Allan Bell, Columbia Police Officers Association president, said.
The proposed program, which Bell said is based on widely used standards, would objectively rate officers based on a written test, an interview and other steps similar to the hoops new recruits jump through on their way onto the force.
- Vice President Jill Wieneke said she couldn't emphasize enough how important this proposal is to association members. "The feeling is that employees aren't getting promoted based on merit," Wieneke said. "They were getting promoted based on friendship, to be perfectly honest with you."
- Right now, 45 of 50 officers on the evening shift have fewer than five years of experience with the department, Bell said, even though it's the busiest shift on the schedule and a potentially dangerous one. He called for an increase in the pay differential for that shift in order to entice more experienced officers to work the less desirable hours.
- Out-of-shape officers are dangerous officers, Bell said. He said more use-of-force lawsuits are filed when officers use excessive force to make up for lack of physical fitness than for any other reason.
To prevent such problems, Bell proposed a new physical fitness program in which officers, who now are only tested for fitness when they begin their career with the force, would be put through their paces on a regular basis. He requested five additional hours a week of compensation for time spent working out and said the association would work with city officials to combine those with the three hours of compensation currently provided to officers in exchange for walking on trails.
- Also mentioned was the fact that Columbia does not pay for gym memberships for police officers, and although both Wilson’s Fitness Centers and Key Largo Fitness and Tanning offer discounts for city employees, the city's Activity and Recreation Center does not. At $325, an annual adult membership at the ARC would still be cheaper than discounted rates at the private institutions.
Columbia Professional Firefighters
- Calling its promotion process "too subjective," Columbia Professional Firefighters President Brad Fraizer asked that the city adopt for firefighters the same promotion review process the police representatives proposed.
- After assuring the city that the association would take care of all associated costs, Fraizer asked for wireless Internet in fire stations. The Internet would be used for recreational use during downtime, he said. Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade asked if such a diversion would be distracting, and Fraizer said the department would adopt and enforce the city's strict computer use policy to prevent abuse.
Columbia Water and Light
- Among other financial requests, Fred Eaton, a spokesman for Columbia Water and Light Department employees, asked for a 2 percent across-the-board raise for the department, with a 3 percent raise for employees who are rated "meets expectations or higher."
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz asked if that meant the 2 percent raise would really be for employees who aren't meeting expectations, as those who meet them would get 3 percent. Eaton replied that, right now, employees who meet expectations are now earning raises as low as 1 percent.
Public Works Department
- Local 773 Union Steward Larry Winn requested that, on holidays, employees who normally would have worked a 10- or 12-hour shift get paid 10 to 12 hours of holiday pay. Currently, those employees only earn eight hours of holiday pay, which shorts them on their paychecks unless they put in for vacation or compensatory time.
- Winn also proposed a permanent year-round switch to summer hours for workers in the Street and Solid Waste divisions. In the summer, work starts at 7 a.m. to beat the heat, and Winn said employees found that arrangement to be preferable.
- Winn also made several financial pitches despite Watkins' request to seek proposals without financial impact. He asked for a 25-cent across-the-board wage increase; a reduction in the health care deductible to $500 for individuals or $1,500 for families; a 10-cent increase in differential pay for evening and night shifts, which would bring it to a total of 75 cents; some assistance with vision and eye-care expenditures; and a return to the 401(k) contributions employees enjoyed earlier in the decade. Winn also requested a clothing allowance for waterproof shirts and socks for Solid Waste employees, as those articles of clothing often get soaked or soiled during the course of their work. The city already covers other clothing items.