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Syracuse police union contract could cost $19.5 million extra, unsettling some councilors

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner explains the department's situation to the council.

Syracuse common councilors questioned if the city can afford a new police union contract that will cost nearly $20 million extra by 2022. Police and city officials said the contract is needed to move the police department forward. 

At a committee meeting Tuesday, Police Chief Kent Buckner said the department is in a crisis. More police officers are leaving or retiring and the department’s pay is not competitive enough, based on neighboring cities. Costly incentives outlined in the contract, are designed to reward police officers based on rank, education, military service, the ability to speak a second language and longevity.

“We’ve got to do something different in order to fix this police department to align it to get back to where we can be competitive,” Buckner said. “We’re not competitive today.”

Frank Caliva, Syracuse’s chief administrative officer said the city intends to pay for the contract with money that is budgeted but hasn’t been spent by police and other departments. That’s a major concern for Councilor-at-Large Tim Rudd, who said this contract will reset city priorities in future budgets.

“We’re finding vacancies across the entire city,” Rudd said. “We’re bringing it into one big bucket. We’re saying, we’re going to use that whole budget to pay for pay raises to the police department, which a large part of is retroactive, and includes retroactive incentives and retroactive longevity, both of which are designed to change behavior, but clearly will not change behavior because they are happening in the past.”

City officials originally had the cost of the contract at $12 million, but adjusted it, after being pressed by Rudd, to include pension costs, federal taxes and overtime pay.

Rudd, like some others on the council, said they are unsure if the city can afford this contract. It’s been agreed to by the mayor and the police union, but needs the council’s approval. If the council votes down the contract, negotiations go to arbitration.

Rudd said he does want to hold a vote before the end of the year, when three current councilors step down and are replaced by three new members.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.