Sandy City Council moves toward cutting raises for first responders, other employeesJun 22, 2020 12:01PM ● By Justin Adams
The Sandy City Council raised property taxes last year to fund a new compensation plan for its first responders, but that money might go elsewhere this year because of COVID-19. (Justin Adams/City Journals)
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
Sandy City police officers and firefighters may not be getting the raises that they were due to receive this year (a portion of which was funded by last year’s property tax increase) because the city council is concerned about being able to afford them amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the council’s June 9 meeting, Councilmembers Kristin Coleman-Nicholl, Marci Houseman and Alison Stroud introduced an amendment to the city’s tentative budget that, among other things, cut the step-in-grade raises from first responders pay for the year, as well as a cost-of-living raise for other city employees.
“At a time when unemployment is at record levels and businesses are struggling to survive, providing 2% raises to City employees and maintaining our step-in-grade program within the Police and Fire Departments is out of step with community expectation,” said a memo signed by the three councilmembers.
Instead the memo recommended the city “monitor revenue and expenses and phase in elements of the compensation plan as resources permit during the fiscal year.”
The proposal was strongly opposed by other city councilmembers, city staff, the mayor, and the vast majority of residents who gave public comment.
“There are plenty of places in the budget where we can make cuts if we need to, but doing it on the backs of those we rely on the most I think is extremely detrimental to the long-term health of our city,” said Mayor Kurt Bradburn.
“We will have people leaving the department as soon as this budget is passed,” said Sandy Fire Department Chief Bruce Cline. “I plead with you to listen to the firefighters. This will be on you, if this passes, and someone calls me and asks why we were late or why an ambulance was slow.”
Multiple city firefighters spoke about the city’s reputation around the valley as one that doesn’t pay its first responders well, which they said has made it difficult over the years to hire and retain the best firefighters. Only since the council passed a new compensation plan last year did the situation start to improve, they said.
“The new compensation and staffing levels were literally a life-changing event for us. We could work less hours at our second and third jobs and be able to spend some time with our families,” said Seth Drew, the union vice president for the department.
The message was shared from Police Chief Greg Severson, who said he worried the council’s move would cause officers to seek employment elsewhere.
“Two years ago things began to change. We were able to get the pay plan in place. This allowed us to be more competitive, to bring in more experienced officers from other departments. That’s something we were never able to do before,” he said.
Councilman Zach Robinson, who was previously employed as a Sandy City firefighter, questioned the optics of cutting first responders’ pay in the same proposal that allocated $150,000 for the construction of new pickleball courts in the city.
“I feel like this proposal does not invest in our employees,” he said. “This proposal is putting forth confusing messaging. We’re sitting here talking about frugality and being more conservative with the budget, but yet there’s items in this proposal that you could argue are ‘wants’ and not ‘needs.’”
Councilmember Monica Zoltanski questioned the manner in which the proposal was brought up, saying that it was only received the day before city council.
“The way this thing was rolled out felt like an ambush. I don’t think it builds a lot of trust, frankly,” she said.
There were also moments of tension during the meeting, such as when the Council Chair Kris Nicholl forbade the fire chief from answering a question posed to him by another city councilmember.
While the councilmembers sponsoring the amendment said they would re-establish the compensation plan for first responders as soon as they feel comfortable with the state of the economy, many first responders who gave public comment said they heard similar things from the city council when they got rid of a similar compensation plan amid the 2009 recession.
Despite the opposition shown to the proposal, it was passed by the council with a 4-3 vote, with Councilmember Cyndi Sharkey joining the three sponsors.
During the following week’s city council meeting, Councilmember Brooke Christensen proposed another amendment that aimed to find a compromise. It would have released 50% of the compensation plan funds at the beginning of the fiscal year, and kept the remaining 50% to be released by the city council later in the year based on certain economic benchmarks.
While some of the city councilmembers said they were open to compromise, the amendment ultimately failed along the same lines as the original amendment.
By state law, all Utah cities must finalize their budgets before July 1, which gives Sandy two more council meetings to pass a final budget, June 23 and 30.