When it comes to negotiating salary and benefits for Ventura’s police officers, there doesn’t seem to be much debate. On May 7, at the regular Ventura City Council meeting, the City Council approved a new two-year contract that guarantees a 2.75 percent pay increase on July 1 and followed by another 2.25 percent increase next year. By approving this new contract, from 2014 to 2019, officers will receive an 18.8 percent increase in pay over five years. Further, officers will also receive additional pay for continuing education, working with canines, being bilingual and duty on motorcycles, plus medical benefits up to $1,040 per month for medical and dental, as well as an “optional benefit” of $462 per month. The police department makes up 34 percent of the city’s annual budget at $34.8 million, the biggest burden on the city’s revenues, with the average salary for a Ventura police officer at $68,114.
On the surface, these terms seem reasonable, especially given the demands of the job, plus recruiting qualified candidates and retention. Looking beyond the superficial, however, Ventura officers seem to be doing quite well. According to Transparent California, a public and pension database, salary and benefits for Ventura officers over the last several years exceed $160,000 for all the officers listed. Now the quandary is, should Ventura officers’ pay and pension be the top priority? With the approval of this contract, if any other bargaining unit, aka union, gets a better pay raise, Ventura officers will also see a raise in their pay to offset that difference. We wonder if there is a proper balance in spending city revenues on law enforcement versus other departments, such as allocating more resources toward expediting rebuilding after the fire, and also if all union representatives should be at the table at the same time when it comes to discussing how to budget the city’s finances.
Getting a closer look at law enforcement’s duties, what is the best use of taxpayer dollars? At the state of the city address, Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney noted an increase in crime over last year, including an increase in violent crime of 25 percent in 2017 over 2016 with aggravated assaults up from 198 in 2016 to 284 last year, an increase of over 43 percent. But there is another side of this story, which includes 87 people being arrested more than 10 times. One particular individual, a homeless person, was arrested 17 times for drinking in public and nine times for disorderly conduct for being drunk. In 2012, Blytheville Courier News published, “Anatomy of an arrest: What it costs, and where the money comes from,” which reported a hypothetical situation of a drunk man being arrested and estimated the cost of the arrest at $436. That was six years ago and Blytheville is in Arkansas. While average cost per arrest in Ventura is not readily available, if we apply the Blytheville statistic, one man’s public drunkenness cost Ventura at least $11,336. We wonder if that sort of money could be better used in housing and rehabilitation because based on the number of times that one man was arrested, enforcement and punishment isn’t working.
While there is a lot more to look at when it comes to law enforcement and their pay, we urge city leaders to hesitate, debate and negotiate a broader perspective in how to best benefit all of Ventura residents and the most effective use of taxpayer dollars. Balance is key to a civil society and community.