McAlester city councilors approved a collective bargaining agreement and a memorandum of understanding with the union representing McAlester firefighters — but voted against a proposed contract with the police union.
Following a closed executive session meeting, city councilors returned to open session Tuesday night to vote unanimously against accepting a contract proposal with Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 97, the union chapter which represents McAlester police officers.
Earlier Tuesday, city councilors voted unanimously to authorize the mayor to sign a collective bargaining agreement and a memorandum of understanding for the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year with Local 2284 of the International Association of Firefighters, the union that represents McAlester firefighters.
The actions comes in the midst of the city's budget crunch amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and as civil unrest is ongoing across the nation.
One issue regarding the contract impasse in McAlester concerns unpaid furlough days and some losses in benefits.
The firefighters union accepted the same reductions as the city's non-uniformed employees, including what amounts to 96 hours of unpaid furlough time off per year, a freeze in merit or steps raises, and no clothing allowance.
Members of the police union rejected the cuts and instead proposed simply rolling over the current contract for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The city and the police union remained at an impasse as of early Wednesday regarding a contract agreement.
"We gave them our best offer and they gave us theirs," said McAlester Mayor John Browne.
"The FOP is trying to negotiate this is public and that's not they way it should be done," Browne said, referring to social media posts. "We're not going to negotiate in public."
What happens if a contract agreement is not reached by July 1 after the current one expires June 30?
"We still have some time," Browne said. "We have a week to work this out."
Browne said the current situation in McAlester has nothing to do with the defund the police movement currently ongoing in other parts of the nation.
"The city of McAlester is in no way defunding the police department," Browne said. "We know the value" of police, he said.
"Something people don't realize is public safety, police and fire, is about 70 percent of the general fund," said Browne.
He said the city is facing a total shortfall of just over $4 million over the next fiscal year. Browne said the city needs the cooperation of non uniformed employees, City Manager Pete Stasiak, the firefighters and police in accepting reductions to make it through the budget crunch. He said the city has obtained cooperation from the first three.
"We need the police to help us balance the budget," said Browne.
"I truly hope we can come to an agreement that benefits both parties," Browne said. "I hope we can continue with the good relationship we have."
Some police officers sounded taken aback by the council's decision not to accept the police proposal to simply roll over the existing contract to the upcoming fiscal year.
"I don't know why they rejected it," said FOP Lodge 97 President Eli Hass, a master patrolman with the McAlester Police Department.
He said approximately 39 officers are currently on the McAlester police force, including Interim Chief Kevin Hearod.
"We are down six officers, plus an animal control officer," said Hass. He said police are having to perform duties previously handled by the animal control officer, even though they are not trained in animal control.
What's the police officers' reaction to the city rejecting the proposed FOP contract?
"They're feeling pretty disenfranchised now, our lodge," Hass said. "They're wanting us to take concessions. All we're wanting to do is move forward and roll over our contract."
By rolling over the current FOP contract and making it effective for the new fiscal year, McAlester police would not gain any increased pay or benefits, but they would not lose what they currently have.
Hass is concerned it may get more difficult to hire police officers.
"We're sending the wrong message to applicants here," Hass said. "We're pretty depleted." He considered that discouraging due to what he called "the situation going on around the country with police officers.
"Several officers said there is no support," Hass said. "These are guys that need to feel supported."
Hass said he understands the city faces financial challenges. He also noted the civil unrest and protests against police ongoing in other parts of the country are not occurring here — but he maintained McAlester police officers have to deal with it in other ways.
Their wives see what's happening around the country, Hass said.
"We deal with some of it on the highway," he said, adding that many times those stopped for offenses on U.S. Highway 69 are not from the McAlester area and may react much more aggressively when stopped by police.
Hass said he did not know if there is an official hiring freeze put in place by the city administration at the police department, "but we're not hiring anybody," he said.
"My concern is for our community," Hass said. "With the amount of money taken from our budget, it's affecting our training."
Hass said the McAlester police budget is about $3.8 million, and the city plans to remove more than $600,000 from that amount. He said that would reduce the police budget to what it was 10 years ago.
It's his understanding that he has to wait for the city to get back in touch with the union for the negotiations to continue.
"We're not trying to have any hard feelings toward the city," Hass said. "I'm trying to figure out how I can keep our department together and have guys optimistic about working here. We've had several people leave recently."
He too is hopeful an agreement can be reached.
"At the end of the day, everyone wants what's best," Hass said.
"I understand we're in unprecedented times because of the pandemic," said Hass. "We're in unprecedented times in law enforcement as well."
Browne is hopeful outstanding issues can be resolved and a contract agreement reached with the police union.
"I hope we can get it done and continue with the good relationship we have," Browne said. "We have no intention to defund any more than is necessary with the budget.
"I would anticipate when the economy recovers we will get people back on at full force," he said.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.