Saratoga Springs cops considering litigation over lack of raises

2012-10-27T00:35:00Z 2012-10-28T01:05:04Z Saratoga Springs cops considering litigation over lack of raisesJim Dalrymple - Daily Herald Daily Herald
October 27, 2012 12:35 am  • 

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A group of Saratoga Springs police officers is considering litigation because they say the city reneged on promises to make yearly pay raises.

According to attorney Justin Elswick, officers Jeremy Wright, Jesse Davis, Kevin Turner, Jared Chuchran and Aaron Rosen were hired in 2007 when the Saratoga Springs Police Department was created. At the time of their hiring, Elswick said, the officers were promised yearly 5 percent raises. Those raises, however, dried up after only one year.

"The first year Chief Hicken submitted the budget and the raises were granted," Elswick said, adding that in all subsequent years the city manager vetoed additional raises even though the police chief continued to ask for them in his budget.

Elswick said the root of the problem goes back to the officers' hiring. At that time, the city publicized the job openings with advertisements promising regular pay increases.

"The ads themselves basically talked about how you would be able to obtain a pay raise," Elswick said. "A couple of the officers actually received documents that illustrated the pay scale and step up."

Those ads and documents created a "contractual obligation" on the part of the city to provide raises, Elswick argued. Instead, however, Elswick said the city refused to provide the raises because city manager Mark Christensen didn't want to set a precedent or create an expectation on the part of other city employees. Yet over the same period of time, Elswick went on to say, city officials have increased their own pay.

"Our understanding is that the mayor, Mia Love, and the city council have increased their salaries and wages," he said.

Representatives for Mia Love did not comment on the situation Friday morning and Christensen did not return phone calls. However, in a letter dated July 5, Christensen declined to comply with the demands presented by Elswick and the officers.

"The setting of salaries is a discretionary, legislative decision," Christensen wrote in the letter. "Furthermore, a number of assertions in your letter are simply incorrect. As a result, the city fully intends on defending its actions if litigation ensues."

Saratoga Springs City Councilman Michael McOmber further explained that the city council has sole discretion when it comes to spending money.

"The council is the only group that can commit taxpayer dollars for any expenditure," McOmber said. "That includes raises."

He added that neither department heads nor the city manager himself can approve expenditures like raises. The city also only budgets for one year at a time, meaning it did not commit to ongoing, multi-year expenses.

McOmber went on to say that the city did recently approve an across-the-board raise that applied to all city departments. However, individual pay increases were distributed by department heads based on performance. McOmber added that like many places the city has been through difficult economic times recently but still wanted to provide some raises in order to stay competitive with the market.

"I'm just grateful we didn't have to lay off police officers," he said.

A statement released by the city expresses a similar sentiment, praising employees and pointing out that many people in Saratoga Springs have "felt the bite of the economic downturn." City employees, the statement indicates, were among those who endured "difficult times." However, the city also maintains that the five officers were not promised or entitled to additional money.

"They claim that they are entitled to be paid 'back' wages and 'possible pay increases' that were never granted and that were frozen in 2008 due to the economic downturn," the statement reads. "City administration maintains that any claims by an employee that they are entitled to 'back' wages and 'possible pay increases' that were frozen by the city is unconscionable."

During a rally in September, McOmber also offered insight into Love's pay. At that time, he said that the council had recently increased Love's pay, which had been roughly $600.

"She makes a little over 830 bucks a month," McOmber said at the rally.

Still, Elswick said the situation is having negative repercussions. The five officers make between $20 and $30 an hour, which he described as a "moderate good wage." The requested raises would amount to roughly $1 more per hour, which Elswick argued is entirely reasonable for a job that requires the officers to "put their lives on the line," work unusual hours and constantly stay up to date in their field, among other things.

"It's not a situation where they're asking for raises that would put them into high earning," he added.

In total, Elswick said the city owes the officers roughly $130,000 in back pay and benefits. If the officers don't receive their promised raises, they also end up with lower retirement. In addition, most of the officers have had to take second jobs, Elswick added.

According to Elswick, he and the officers previously tried to work with the city to resolve the issue because they didn't want to create problems.

"The officers themselves have tried, and I tried, to get this taken care of informally," he explained.

Those efforts met with failure, Elswick said, so the grievances are working their way up the city hierarchy. If they can't be resolved, Elswick explained, litigation could ensue.

Though officers have been pressing for months, news of their grievances made headlines just a week after the Utah Court of Appeals sent officer Aaron Rosen's case back to the city for review. According to court documents, Rosen -- who is among the five officers seeking more pay -- was demoted from corporal to top step officer after dropping his pants in front of a clerk in January 2011. Rosen reportedly described the incident as a wardrobe malfunction and was ordered to cease non-professional contact with the clerk. However, he continued to contact the clerk and was disciplined. The appeals court decision sent the case back to the city for review.

• Daily Herald reporter Billy Hesterman contributed to this report.

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