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Friendly City Police Contract Negotiations Get Feisty 

The city of Fortuna is in the process of finalizing a new contract with its police union that appears to be leaving no one happy.

At the Fortuna City Council's Aug. 5 meeting, City Manager Merrit Perry explained that the city simply wasn't able to meet the Fortuna Police Employees Association's salary requests amid rising pension and insurance costs, and declining sales tax revenues. But during public comment, Charles Ellebrecht, the association's president, made clear the association had hoped the city would have been willing to dip into its $4.9 million reserves to give department employees a sweeter deal, noting the reserves are nearly enough to fund a year of city services.

"Although we can all agree that it's important to have extra money in the savings account for the rainy day when the car breaks down, we need to invest some money to keep our people on the street," he said, adding that a spate of recent departures necessitated that remaining FPD officers collectively log 500 hours of overtime last month. "Our department is breaking down."

Reached last week, Fortuna Police Chief William Dobberstein said there is reason for concern with the department. He said two officers have departed within the last month, making lateral moves to other local departments that pay better than Fortuna. Another is slated to retire Sept. 2, he said, adding that those three departures come on the heels of an officer who left in March.

"We can't afford to lose any more," Dobberstein said, adding that he and his lieutenant are currently covering patrol shifts. "I hope it's not a trend. I think this is a very good place to work. We treat our employees well here. But it's hard with other departments offering officers a higher salary plus a signing bonus. Folks need to take care of their families."

The contract presented to the council Aug. 5, which had already been reluctantly approved by the association, would be in place through 2022 and give employees a 4 percent raise in 2020, followed by 3 percent in 2021 and 2 percent in 2022. But the contract also shifts some of those aforementioned rising health care costs back to employees. Prior contracts had seen the city pick up 92 percent of employees' insurance costs but that number falls to 85 percent in the current deal, negating some of the impact of the raise on employees' take-home pay.

While Perry explained that the net impact of the increases to salary and health care costs is different for each employee depending on their years of service and health care needs, he said the impact to the city is annual cost increases that total $301,000 over the life of the contract.

During public comment at the meeting, Sgt. Gabe Charlton said that while the association approved the contract, it did so reluctantly, recognizing that entering mediation was a battle the association was likely to lose and one that would cost "too much money for a small association to waste on deaf ears."

"I've chosen to speak today because I want to express my disappointment and frustration," he told the council, adding that Fortuna police make, on average, 10 percent less than officers of neighboring agencies.

Police work is hard but he knew that going in, Charlton said, adding, "Feeling unappreciated by my employer, that's a tough pill to swallow."

When the matter returned to the council for further discussion, Mayor Sue Long appeared shaky voiced and criticized the association for its "Facebook approach" to negotiations, saying, "You are professionals and leaders and this tactic was unprofessional."

Long appears to have been referring to a post on the association's page earlier that day, which noted its members had approved the city's contract offer on a narrow 9-8 vote.

"This offer includes a cost of living increase which is unfortunately offset by a significant increase (in) employee insurance cost the city is requiring," the post states. "This increase results in a total annual compensation increase of $208.00 or 17.00 a month for some members. The COLA increase will do nothing for our retention and recruitment issues as we will still be behind other agencies in our region."

Commenters quickly piled on.

"What a slap in the face to you guys!!!," wrote one. "Sure doesn't seem like you guys are appreciated or cared for."

"Can't wait for a council member to need some police help!!!," wrote another. "Uhhh... yer breaking up... can't copy... please hold!"

A Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputy even chimed in with a thinly veiled recruiting pitch: "I know a local agency offering hiring bonuses for laterals."

Though clearly upset with the Facebook post, Long tearfully voiced her support for the department and its employees, saying she wished the city could do more.

"Budgets are difficult ... the bottom line is, we wholeheartedly support you guys and at the end of the day, we want you to go home to your families," Long said. "We want you to be safe and to be able to do your jobs. If you can come up with more ideas besides bashing the council on Facebook and putting out information that's really, really misleading, I'd love to hear it."

Following Long's remarks, three other council members voiced their support for the department.

In an Aug. 12 email to the Journal, Perry said the city is working on finalizing the draft contract, saying it had sent it to the association for final ratification that day and hoped to get it back later in the week.

Dobberstein, meanwhile, said the department is working as diligently as possible to replenish its ranks, noting that two of its nine office positions are currently vacant with another departure looming. He said he'd just hired an officer out of Shasta County and had additional interviews scheduled, adding, "We have the greatest staff in Humboldt County and we're committed to serving the citizens of Fortuna."

Shortly after the venting at the Aug. 5 council meeting — which saw one officer declare that "Fortuna's not the Friendly City — We've got problems" — the association again took to Facebook. This time, it took a different tone.

"We would like the thank the council members who spoke in support of the police department," it said. "We understand that you have a tough job and a limited budget. Let's think outside of the box and come up with a way to keep our great officers who care so much about our community."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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