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A commitment to a safe community

January 6, 2019

Ensuring the safety and well-being of our residents is the first responsibility of the mayor of Santa Fe. That’s a responsibility I take to heart. Because I give public safety the highest priority, I believe it’s also my job to give the people of Santa Fe a full accounting of what we’re doing to meet our goal of having the best police department in the United States.

First, I’ve consistently reached out to express my appreciation for our police officers. That’s why I go on ride-alongs — so I have a small chance to experience what they live every day. It’s why I go to the graduation ceremony of our cadets and attend all of the swearing-ins of our new officers — to let our police know that we appreciate and support them.

It’s also why last September, City Manager Erik Litzenberg and I met with our police officers. According to the president of the police union, it was the first time a mayor and city manager have participated in such a dialog. We wanted to listen to our men and women in uniform — and hear their concerns in their own voices. We followed up that meeting in November with an informal conversation in the mayor’s office with the president and other elected representatives of the police union.

Then, after a hard look at our finances, we took the unprecedented step of asking the police union to reopen contract negotiations at the midpoint of our budget year. Our only purpose: to offer every officer a one-time incentive payment to keep them in the Santa Fe Police Department.

This one-time incentive payment is a serious effort to address a serious problem. To be clear, it’s not the only solution — but it is a good-faith offer to show our officers that we heard what they said, we understand the situation, and we intend to do the right thing.

What is that situation? First, Santa Fe isn’t immune to a national problem with police staffing and pay. Across the country, cities of all sizes are having a difficult time recruiting and retaining police officers. Given the climate in many cities today and changing attitudes toward the police, fewer young people want to take on the job. Here in Santa Fe, we don’t have that climate — but we still feel the impact of young people shying away from policing.

We also are feeling the impact of Albuquerque’s severe crime problem. Because of concerns about rampant crime, the people of Albuquerque recently voted for a tax increase designed to pay their police officers more money. They effectively started a bidding war that changed the public safety game in New Mexico. As a result, some officers decided to leave Santa Fe. To date, the actual number of Santa Fe officers moving to Albuquerque is 10. The point is, we don’t want to lose any more — and at the same time we do want to address the long-standing issue of how we pay our officers.

Our incentive pay offer is a start — and a commitment. Because the city is at the midyear point in our budget, we don’t have access to new money. We’re limited to what we have available. Our police chief and finance department identified $600,000 that we could reprogram from other uses as an immediate incentive pay offer. To put that $600,000 in context, it is more than four times the amount recommended for police officers in our recently completed classification and compensation study.

Police union leadership, in negotiations with the city, accepted our offer. That offer is now in front of the union membership for a vote.

My own suggestion was that we focus the money primarily on our younger officers: Almost 50 percent of our officers have been with the city fewer than six years, and more than 70 percent have fewer than 11 years of service. Those are the men and women we are most at risk of losing. In the end, the agreement was reached to divide the $600,000 evenly, with every member getting the same amount, regardless of current pay rate or years of service. That’s the proposal union membership will vote on.

I hope the membership will ratify the agreement, accept the money and commit to staying with the Santa Fe Police Department. That $600,000 agreement represents a good-faith effort by the city. It shows we’ve listened to our officers’ concerns. We agree with the men and women in our police department: Policing has changed, but for too long their pay scale hasn’t changed. We are addressing that problem. This incentive agreement is one step.

There are more steps ahead. As soon as this matter is resolved, the city is ready to sit down with the police union and open full contract negotiations. We have a lot to talk about — including non-economic issues where we can do a better job of helping our police officers do their jobs. Pay will be on the table, of course. So will issues of training and advancement, technology and equipment, management and leadership.

As we move forward, let’s remember the fundamental goal we share: to make sure the city of Santa Fe has the best police department in the country.

Alan Webber is mayor of Santa Fe.

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