SAN JOSE -- Two top San Jose officials are proposing the city consider short-term bonuses to keep cops on the force in an acknowledgment that police pay and benefit cuts have spurred a worrisome officer exodus even as the city sees a surge in crime.
Councilmen Sam Liccardo, a former prosecutor, and Pete Constant, a former city officer, suggested one possibility would be a one-time, 8 percent retention bonus, with the estimated $7.5 million cost perhaps paid out of salary savings from officers who already have left.
"In light of the increasing rate of departures, it's no secret that we can best stem that flow if we focus on restoring compensation in some form," Liccardo and Constant wrote in a memorandum to be considered at Wednesday's agenda-setting Rules and Open Government Committee, of which Mayor Chuck Reed is chairman.
Liccardo and Constant, both allies of the mayor, call for the city to schedule a council "study session" in coming months to discuss ways San Jose can boost police compensation and staffing.
But their proposal didn't exactly cheer San Jose's officers union, which has been battling the city over voter-approved pension reforms and is girding for contract talks in which officers, who had agreed to 10 percent pay cuts in 2011 to limit layoffs, are hoping to see raises.
"I'm not sure what to think about this," said San Jose Police Officers' Association President Jim Unland, adding that "just a few weeks ago, the
"As Sam Liccardo and Pete Constant know, the place for these discussions is at the negotiations table," Unland continued. "When the city has a real offer to present us, we'll take a serious look at it."
Councilman Ash Kalra, who has criticized the mayor's pension reform agenda, called it "ironic" that Liccardo and Constant would make such a proposal, saying the policies they've supported have driven officers away.
"We all agree that we have to do what we can to keep our officers here," Kalra said. "One thing I do agree is that it's going to take us years to recover from the damage the mayor and his allies have caused by driving away our employees."
Reed is expected to support the councilmen's call for a study session. In a memorandum this week he listed "police staffing" among 11 topics for special council study sessions in the next six months.
The proposal Liccardo and Constant outlined is similar to what Reed had suggested back in October to keep more cops on the force, in which Reed called for targeted retention bonuses and "performance-based raises." He said at the time that "across-the-board raises will have to wait," arguing the city cannot afford the $21 million it would cost to restore the 10 percent pay cuts the officers took in 2011 without cutting other programs.
Figuring ways to boost officer pay within the city's fragile budget will be tricky. Though there is some money available in the current budget for unfilled officer positions, it would only be available for a year, and the city may not have the cash to cover ongoing "raises."
Constant and Liccardo propose that any incentive bonus not count toward retirement pensions. And they suggest the city suspend contract talks with the cops for a year. The proposed bonuses, they said, would serve as a "placeholder" until "a more sustained pay increase could be offered with what we all hope will be a sunnier fiscal picture the following year."
San Jose has long suffered from thin staffing in its police department but it has become a heightened concern as crime rises, with homicides reaching a 20-year high in 2012 and officers battling City Hall over pay and benefit cuts.
The department's authorized staffing is just 1,094, but of those, fewer than 1,000 have been available for full duty. The department also has seen 30 resignations in 60 days. Both Chief Chris Moore and Assistant Chief Rikki Goede retired early recently. City Manager Debra Figone has been scrambling to find a new chief in a process that already has taken longer than expected.
The San Jose Police Officers' Association has blamed the city's pension reforms and pay cuts for an exodus its leaders describe as catastrophic, with the cover of the union's latest magazine depicting the department as a sinking ship.
Reed has argued "spiraling" employee benefit costs are to blame for police staffing shortages. The city, he said, would have had to cut 150 more officers from the force if the cops hadn't agreed to pay cuts.
Constant said whatever the cause, the city needs to do something to keep its cops.
"It's easy to politicize it," Constant said. "What we're trying to do is not fix the blame but fix the problem."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.