Town Public Safety Committee Pushing to Move Compensation Decisions Faster

Our Town  |  Public Safety  |  Tax and Finance  |  February 6, 2019

The Town of Palm Beach Public Safety Committee is trying to stop an exodus of police and firefighters leaving for other agencies that offer better compensation.

The consultant’s study, comparing compensation of town employees to the local market, isn’t planned to be completed until March. That’s too long to wait, the Town Council’s Public Safety Committee decided Wednesday.

See below the remarks from Maggie Zeidman, Town Council Member and Chair of the Public Safety Committee; Julie Araskog, Town Council Member and Committee Member; and Mayor Gail Coniglio.

PUBLIC SAFETY COMMITTEE MEETING
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30, 2019

Where We Are and The Path Forward

Maggie Zeidman, Chair

The Elephant in the room today is really the compensation study. This is so important that we have to get it right, and we have to do it as expediently as we can, and it’s of such significance that I asked the mayor if she would please join us up here because I think it adds gravitas to what we’re about to engage in in this meeting.

Here’s where we are. The town council made a decision in September to have the compensation study. It was based on the fact that we had public safety employees leaving in higher numbers than usual and we found that out in August.
We took an action in September. Government moves slowly. I was told this five weeks into my appointment that government moves slowly because I didn’t have patience at the time on another issue; but, it does move slowly and there are processes that are followed.

So, the process that needed to be followed is this. When the Town Council makes the decision to spend money, in this case it was $35,000 to get a compensation study, we have to get a committee together who looks at proposals. It’s not something that you do the way I’ve done things in the past in private organizations where you just make a decision, you have people come in who you think would be best and you pick one.

Now, normally in the past, council [members] have been able to sit on that committee, but rules have changed and we are under legal advisement from Mr. Randolph that’s not appropriate. However, we as a voting member, can sit in on the meeting. A request for proposal went out and they had several companies return their interest and they were interviewed and the committee looked over each company and they made a decision on Evergreen Solutions.

I was there when the decision was made, as an observer, not as a voter. I think they made the right decision and I’ll tell you why.

The only reason I’m going through this is because right now, I have lost patience again. Evergreen Solutions was the choice and they were chosen because Evergreen has had the most experience out of all the proposals that were received in the state of Florida. We had companies from California, a company from Pittsburgh, a company from Georgia, but Evergreen Solutions had just done a study for Palm Beach Gardens and they had done a lot of municipalities surrounding us. So, the committee chose Evergreen. It came back to the Town Council, because we have to approve it, and we approved it. That was October.

We then met with Evergreen and we had each council member, the mayor, town staff, and town manager had an opportunity to say what we were looking for. It turned out that we also needed to look at the general employees as well. That’s the history.

Then we get into December and into January and here we are on January 30th, and I asked last week could we please have, since we had a report, that the Sheriff’s Office and the County had submitted information, can we please see that report so that we can get started. Well, it’s not complete. That’s where we are.

We await a compensation study that is, frankly, not happening quickly enough to help us, and while I’d like to point a finger at Evergreen, in fact they are reliant on other towns to provide information with no incentive for doing so. That’s what happens.

We don’t expect to hear from Evergreen until March.

I want to say something here too, that the Palm Beach Civic Association and the Police Foundation have been exceedingly helpful in totally getting this problem that we are facing and running ads that I think highlight the service that are police and our firefighters bring to this town. As they pointed out in their Sunday ad and they had another one in December.

The compensation study is the first step to getting the staff compensation right-sized. Let’s zoom in on the problem. We have a revolving door among sworn police officers and our firefighters and medics. In 2018, 10 sworn police officers, out of 68, resigned. 7 have gone to [other] local agencies. In 2017, another 7 resigned and went to other local agencies.

Similarly, among firefighters in 2018, 7 resigned, all with less than 5 years’ experience, for employment with another local Fire Department. The preliminary market data supports that we are not market competitive.

If we keep this up, we will fail to thrive as a safe community. We are experiencing an ever-widening gap of experienced public safety employees. This affects our safety and it affects our health. While the compensation study does include problem areas among the general town staff, our boiling point is public safety and that is where we need to focus our immediate attention.

As such, I want to propose a road map to get us where we need to go. I feel like we’ve been traveling on local back roads, where the speed limit is 25 MPH and I suggest to my colleague Julie, to you, and to our mayor and council, that we hop on I-95 and meet Evergreen at the exit up the road.

Here are my recommendations. If followed, to use the term I learned from Mike Brown we will be T’d up to move forward when Evergreen presents its data in March.

Number one, do in-house what you can. This is already in progress. We know from Fire Chief Donatto, Police Major Caristo, the captains, lieutenants, sergeants, the rank and file firefighters and officers, that we are not market competitive and we know where our weak points are in our compensation benefits and what we, my colleagues, have been told [and it] is born out in data readily available online. I know, because I fact checked them.

I have several recommendations how to more this forward faster. We are costing out the salary and wage pace for a hybrid step program in-house, a reduced work week for firefighters in-house, and a plan to address the compression issues that exist in both the Fire and the Police Departments. This is being done under the umbrella of the Town Manager by our employees. This is already in progress, is being worked on, and it is complex. That’s number one. That recommendation is already being done. It’s being done as we sit here this morning.

Number 2, we have engaged the Retirement Board of Trustees Chairman Stanton to walk the talk with us. Any change we make in salary or the benefit package affects the funding of our pension plan. We’re $100,000,000 short of funding today. We have $200,000,000 plus assets under management. You can’t make up $100 Million using $200 Million.

Town councils must, for every wage and benefit decision now and in the future, engage smart folks in the room, and Stanton, and I see Ed Carter here, and I thank you Ed for being here. We need to engage in discussion with them so we understand the outcome of our decisions. This is not to say that we will shy away from doing what is right – what is fair for officers and firefighters, but we will know, eyes wide open, the financial effects so we’re also fair to taxpayers. We already have enough information to make a base case. A straw poll if you will, that I recommend to the Town Council and I’m hopeful that my esteemed colleague, Julie, joins me in recommending that we get the base case scenarios to Pete Strong for an actuarial evaluation of costs. Specifically, how salary adjustments through a hybrid step plan, shortened work week, and years in-out affect our pension fund and its future.

I would like to move ahead with that by making that recommendation to my colleagues at the Town Council meeting on February 14th, and if we can do that and get that piece done, then I think we will be in a better position in March because the information we will get from the actuary will dovetail with what the Evergreen study will show us in March, and that puts us that much further ahead in our analysis.

I propose too, number three, that the Town Council, if it finds it necessary, that we [hold] special meetings to propel our decisions forward. So, those are the recommendations.

There are three; continue the in-house analysis, special town council meetings as needed, and engage with the Retirement Board with the base case for the actuaries and we can get that information ahead of time.

That way, because we already have a lot of data, we can move up I-95 and we will meet the Evergreen study in March. I think that puts us in a better place. That’s the recommended plan forward. I’m proposing that we move ahead with the three recommendations. Julie?

Julie Araskog, Committee Member

I just want to make sure, I’m sure most of you in the room know, because it is Sunshine Law, Maggie cannot talk to me so, this is certainly the first time I’ve heard this and there are proposals I had that she hasn’t heard.

I completely agree with Maggie. Just to give you a little more history, both Maggie and I, and many of the other council members and the mayor, have gone out and met with police officers. I’ve met with over 50, probably 58 now, police officers.
I’ve met with Chief Donatto. I’ve also met with over 50 firefighters to talk to them to find out what is it that’s causing you to leave, what is it that is the problem for you. Mike Belisle, from the Police Foundation last summer, brought me a study that showed how we were compensating and how we were not fair, we were not competitive, and it was our compensation package that was causing the revolving door.

When I then went to the officers, to the Chiefs, they also explained what the issues were. I agree with Maggie. We know what we’re doing through looking at all these different studies. We have a new town manager in Kirk Blouin who has been very effective in finding out the issues as well and Danielle Olson.

I think that it’s time to move forward. It could take months and months we say April, but we don’t really know when this complete study will be finished.

We do know where we’re falling short and I think we also need to hear from the actuary as Maggie suggested. I’ve talked to Ed Carter and I’ve also talked to Dan Stanton about what we need to do, and I think we have got to solve this problem we have to do it thoroughly.

We have to vet it. I understand that, but we are the Town of Palm Beach. Our fire and rescue and our police are the linchpin of our town. If we don’t have safety and we don’t have great responders, our population is a mean 68.7 years old. We have got to have responders who can take care of our residents and make sure when there in time of crisis that they have someone that arrives quickly, knows what they’re doing, and takes care of them for the safety, health, and welfare of our residents. So, I would say that I agree completely.

Mayor Gail Coniglio

Well done Mags, well done. Your leadership on this has been exemplary.

I think at some point we lost sight of doing the right thing in this community and I hope going forward that we can have the data and the financial implications at hand; and, do the right thing for our employees. It goes across the board to general, fire, and police. We cannot live without you. You’re integral to the success of this community.

Remembering that there is a balance and the balance is being cognizant of what that cost is to the pocketbooks of the taxpayer. However, our first and our foremost decision making should be on protecting the future of this community, which can only be done by supporting and enhancing the offers that we give to our employees. Thank you Maggie. Well done. Thank you.

Press

Palm Beach speeds up work to stop exodus of police, firefighters  (Palm Beach Daily News)

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