Currently, the projected numbers (positions and salaries) for 2016 are as follows:
Sergeants (4): $322,000
Patrolmen (12): $893,000
Part-time officers (3): $20,000.
(Salaries are rounded off here.)
Costs of benefits including health care, pension, etc., as well as vehicles and other equipment, bring the total to almost $2.8 million. Overtime was budgeted at $100,000 for this year, but with the year-to-date figure at $112,000, that limit has been exceeded.
Councillor Mary Barninger noted that previous councils were overly generous to the police department. "Previous councils had given away the store without arbitration, because they didn't know how to negotiate a contract," she said. Such giveaways contribute to ongoing costs and, once in place, are difficult to rescind. "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube," Barninger said.
Arbitration is a periodic mediation between the Police Association and Columbia Borough and can be one cause of increasing costs. Police in Pennsylvania are not allowed to strike but instead go to arbitration to negotiate compensation. Arbitration does not usually go in favor of the municipality. An arbitrator's decision is final unless the parties can reach an independent agreement outside the ruling. Arbitration negotiations are not open to the public.
Another concern is underfunded pensions. In the most recent arbitration last summer, an arbitrator reduced employee contributions to the pension fund from 5% to 3%."That was never negotiated, it was never talked about. No one complained about it on either side," Barninger said. "It was just an arbitrary decision that the arbitrator made. In doing that, they actually damaged the value of the pension plan. The pension plan is now underfunded." The contribution rate is expected to be raised to 4% in 2016, and back to 5% in 2017. Taxpayers will make up any difference.
Councillor Jim Smith proposed changing to "zero-based budgeting," in which every expense would need to be justified every year, as one way of combating budget bloat.
Councillor Barry Ford suggested consolidating local police departments in order to contain costs. "We did it with the sewer plant. We did with the fire department," he said. "We really need to get serious about regionalization. Share the cost." Ford also suggested contacting other departments as a first step in the process. "Let's be proactive instead of reactive." Ford cited politics as a sticking point in moving forward. "Our biggest holdup right now in Columbia is politics." Councillors also discussed inviting District Attorney Craig Stedman to offer help with the consolidation process.
Councillor Barninger was not quick to accept those options, however. "I do not feel comfortable going to the district attorney or any of the other municipalities without the support or the willingness of our own police department to participate in that process," she said.