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Snoqualmie City Council looks to trim police budget

SNOQUALMIE - Snoqualmie City Council members are keeping a close eye on the city's police department budget following the realization that some high-ranking police personnel have more than 1,000 hours of unused vacation time that must be paid out upon their retirement, and that some officers are getting more than just a 4-percent cost of living raise this year.

At the City Council's Oct. 11 meeting, police chief Jim Schaffer outlined cuts totaling around $300,000 to the police department's initial $2.1-million budget for 2005. The new preliminary $1.8-million budget would be a 4-percent increase from the 2004 budget.

The budget adjustment followed a special meeting of the City Council held Oct. 5 after Councilman Greg Fullington reviewed parts of the police budget for 2005. Fullington, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he was initially told by public safety staff that its budget was going to be increased by only $26,000 this year. When Fullington saw the budget increase was closer to $350,000, he began reviewing city documents.

It was discovered that recently retired director of public safety Don Isley was still collecting a check and benefits from the city, even though he left the city in August, and that position was cut upon his departure.

According to Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher, Isley approached him in the months leading up to his retirement to discuss 899 hours of vacation time that needed to be compensated upon his departure. Rather than pay out the sum, Isley suggested that the city use the rest of his vacation days as employment days from which he could also receive benefits. Concerned that paying out that vacation time in a lump sum - estimated to be between $60,000-$100,000 - could adversely affect the budget, Fletcher said, in theory it was a good idea and he signed a memo of understanding drafted by Isley last December.

Documents presented at the Oct. 5 meeting revealed that Isley would continue to collect his health benefits and a paycheck until the end of May 2005, and that other police officials had large amounts of unused vacation time. Assistant police chief Ed Crosson has 1,576 hours of vacation and Schaffer has 1,147 hours of vacation. Council members were worried about the large accumulations, as the city must pay for that time upon the officer's retirement. With so many hours saved up, council members said, paying out those totals in the upcoming years could devastate the department's budget to the point that it couldn't operate.

Council members said they don't blame the police employees for accruing the time, but rather blame Isley for trying to take advantage of Snoqualmie.

"The taxpayers are getting bilked here," said Councilman Greg Fullington.

Councilman Matt Larson said the actions of Isley are especially upsetting because it was a case of a leader setting the tone of the department. He likened Isley's actions to a "fox in the hen house."

"That's wrong, morally, ethically and any way you look at it," Fletcher said at the Oct. 5 meeting.

Isley said later that he had done nothing wrong by planning to be compensated for his vacation hours. Isley spent his last year with the city as interim city administrator, an appointment he took after the previous city administrator was fired. He said the appointment forced him to nix plans for trips he had set for Africa and Canada, and he wasn't going to back the city into a corner where it needed a city administrator around but couldn't have one because he would be away.

"I couldn't do that as a person," Isley said.

As for the high amount of accrued time of vacation, Isley said it is sometimes hard for city employees to get away for vacation. With large projects, mandatory meetings and unpredictable situations arising, city staff, especially officers, can't always get done what is needed to get done.

"I was looking out for the city's interests [by taking the time as vacation as opposed to lump sum payment]," Isley said. "I just didn't want to get screwed."

Isley also said some of the issues brought up by the council last week were not related to him. Isley disputed a human resource document showing that he was going to be paid through the end of May 2005, including a $399 Pay for Performance (PFP) bonus. Isley said the agreement he reached with Fletcher was that Isley would officially be off the payroll by March 1, 2005, and that it would be illogical and wrong for him to collect a PFP since he was not working for the city during that time period.

A question regarding the cellular phone issued to him (and paid for) by the city also is not a problem, Isley said. Isley said he asked Schaffer about giving the phone back, but Schaffer said Isley could keep the phone since they were inexpensive. Isley left behind some personal checks to pay for the plan up until he was officially off the Snoqualmie payroll, not a stack of city checks as first believed.

Isley said the entire debacle is confusing to him since any move to try and get any extra money from the city would taint the more than 20 years he's spent with the city.

"Would I tarnish my reputation and my retirement over a phone?" Isley said.

At the Oct. 11 meeting, city administrator Bob Larson said he is still reviewing records to see how much it would cost to pay Isley the rest of his retirement in one lump sum. Should the city decide to do that this year, the cost would come out of the 2004 budget, not the 2005 budget as originally planned.

Concerns regarding the high pay of police officers have not been resolved because the police contract was negotiated through the department's collective bargaining association, and until the end of next year it cannot be changed. Under the current contract, all officers receive a 4-percent raise each year, but that can be added to with additional benefits for education and performance.

Council members can restrict the amount of money given to the department and have asked Schaffer to trim the budget. Fullington said he was pleased with the effort Schaffer showed getting the numbers down for the police department.

"This was more than I expected," Fullington said.

Fullington said that it'll be important for the council to have this issue ironed out by the time next year's police contract negations begin, because if an agreement cannot be reached before the expiration date of the previous agreement, the present contract stays until a new agreement is met.

In 2001, the city passed an ordinance that restricts employees to 400 hours of accrued vacation over a two-year period. Any hours previously earned before passage of the ordinance were allowed to be kept by employees.

Council members said they'd like to explore that policy again to determine if hours accrued from years past should be paid out at current rates or at the rates in place at the time they were earned. Schaffer said he and Crosson have plans to get their vacation times down to 400 hours in the next 2-3 years.

Council members were quick to point out that they don't blame the entire police department, the officers of which they respect, but do point to Isley, who was the key negotiator in the last police contract, for what could be construed as padding a retirement nest egg.

Isley said he was not the only person involved in those negotiations since they also were attended by Gary Armstrong, the city administrator Isley replaced last summer. He also said he did not force the City Council to agree to the terms of the contract.

"The council approved that contract," Isley said.

At the Oct. 11 meeting, the council instructed Schaffer to keep looking for ways to cut costs, but to be cautious of what the changes would do to service in the city.

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