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Law & Order

Despite arbitrator’s order, East St. Louis cops have been waiting 6 years for a raise

Police investigate a crime scene on 24th St at Belleview Ave. in East St. Louis in January 2021. Officers in the city have gone years without raises despite working in an area of the Metro East that they say is more dangerous than others.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Police investigate a crime scene on 24th St at Belleview Ave. in East St. Louis in January 2021. Officers in the city have gone years without raises despite working in an area of the Metro East that they say is more dangerous than others.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

It’s been almost six years since their last collective bargaining agreement expired and more than two years since city officials and union representatives agreed to terms on a new labor contract, but East St. Louis police officers are still waiting for a pay raise.

During a special meeting on Oct. 11, city aldermen approved a resolution authorizing a new contract. But seven members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 126, which represents the officers in contract negotiations, confirmed this week that they have not received the 2% raise nor the five years worth of retroactive pay ordered by a court-appointed arbitrator on Aug. 2 of this year.

It’s not clear why the city has delayed the raises. But documents obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat show that both sides of the negotiating table agreed to terms of the new contract in 2019 before a former city manager persuaded the city council to vote against it, citing East St. Louis’ long-standing financial woes.

The intervening time has been given to special meetings and missed deadlines and, say the rank-and-file officers, have created a serious breach of trust with both the city and their own union leadership.

The officers say they have been willing to compromise given the city’s financial position.

At the arbitration hearing, documents show, Fraternal Order of Police attorney Robert Jones argued that East St. Louis cops are paid less than officers in comparably sized cities and that they’ve accepted raise amounts below annual cost of living increases for each year since 2015. In the meantime, the attorney argued, East St. Louis officers are charged with patrolling the streets of a city that ranks nationally for its rate of violent crime.

Members of FOP Lodge 126 have rejected a subsequent settlement agreement negotiated in October by the FOP and city attorneys and say their next step toward resolving the dispute will be litigation.

Officers who spoke to the BND have asked that their names not be published out of fear of reprisal, including the loss of their jobs. Union officials who were directly involved with negotiations aren’t talking at all.

City Attorney C.J. Barecevic, who negotiated two settlements with the police union, has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Jones, the police union attorney who negotiated a settlement city alderman approved last month, and Ryan Olier, a field representative for the Fraternal Order of Police who negotiated the original contract in 2019, also have not returned repeated requests for comment.

East St. Louis City Attorney C.J. Baricevic has not responded to repeated requests for comment about a collective bargaining agreement he negotiated with the police officers union.
C.J. Baricevic
/
East St. Louis City Attorney C.J. Baricevic has not responded to repeated requests for comment about a collective bargaining agreement he negotiated with the police officers union.

The Arbitration Ruling

Court-appointed arbitrator Jacalyn Zimmerman ruled on Aug. 2 that the East St. Louis City Council reneged on the tentative contract agreement made in 2019 between representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police and East St. Louis officials, which provided all officers with the rank of sergeant and below a 2% raise beginning on the first of each year from 2016 through 2019.

Zimmerman gave the city 30 days to institute the raises and to make good on four years worth of retroactive pay.

According to a document filed with the St. Clair County Court, Baricevic presented the terms of the tentative agreement to members of the city council in October of 2019 and explained that “it would constitute unfair labor practice under the (Illinois Labor Relations) Act should the Council not ratify it,” because the city had already agreed to them.

That’s when council members voted against the new contract’s salary provisions on a recommendation from former City Manager Brooke Smith who, though she had signed off on the deal, told council members the city could not afford to implement raises, let alone five years of retroactive pay increases.

Smith, who is now an assistant city manager for University City, Missouri, declined to comment for this article.

The arbitration ruling does not indicate how much the retroactive pay would total. But any officer who was on the city’s payroll since the last contract expired in 2015, even if they have left the East St. Louis Police Department or retired, is entitled to a prorated share.

According to the court documents, Smith said she felt obligated to sign off on the tentative agreement because it had been negotiated by her predecessor prior to her hiring earlier in 2019. She told the city council, however, that the contract threatened the ability of the police and fire departments to remain operational.

The city already had absorbed two financial blows in 2019, she reminded them:

  1. City sales and property taxes revenues had suffered due to falling profits at the Casino Queen. Profits that once topped $14 million per year had fallen to just $6 million by 2019. Year-to-date revenue in October 2020 had fallen to $2 million — owed in part to the COVID-19 pandemic — leaving the city with a $7.6 million budget deficit for 2021, Smith testified during the arbitration hearing.
  2. The Illinois Comptroller’s office had seized more than $4 million of revenue bound for the city’s general fund and redirected it to East St. Louis’ police and firefighter pension funds to make up for the city’s missed contributions. The BND reported in February 2020 that the revenue “intercept” caused interruptions to city services, delayed the budgeted hiring of at least five new police officers and threatened the jobs of firefighters and operation of one of the department’s engine houses. Smith also testified during the arbitration hearing that city hall staff had been reduced by eight employees to save money.

Applications for aid and other state and federal loans have been problematic, Smith told the arbitrator, because the city has “a backlog” of uncompleted budget audits.

In her ruling, Zimmerman recognized that East St. Louis’ fiscal problems have been long-standing and well known, but “the fact that salary increases may be difficult to pay does not demonstrate an inability to pay.”

She also pointed out that, despite the fiscal hurdles, negotiators on both sides had already agreed to the terms of the tentative contract prior to the city council voting against it.

“... the City has suffered these problems for a very long time, and the City officials who were involved in the bargaining, as well as its counsel, were well aware of the state of the City’s finances when they presented the City’s offer and incorporated it into the TA (tentative agreement). They obviously believed that the City would find a way to grant its police officers, who work in very difficult circumstances, some additional compensation.”

Zimmerman upheld the tentative agreement, which provided the police officers an immediate 2% raise and retroactive annual raises to 2015 to be paid in an unspecified lump sum amount.

Mayor Robert Eastern III announced an overnight curfew in response to shootings in East St. Louis. He said the city will “try to meet all its financial responsibilities,” including pay raises for its police officers.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Mayor Robert Eastern III announced an overnight curfew in response to shootings in East St. Louis. He said the city will “try to meet all its financial responsibilities,” including pay raises for its police officers.

A new deal

According to the documents acquired by the BND, Baricevic and Jones, the Fraternal Order of Police attorney, reached a new “settlement” on Oct. 8, more than five weeks after Zimmerman’s deadline for the city to comply with her ruling.

Its terms provide all the same compensation benefits outlined in the original contract, adding that the two sides have 90 days to negotiate the total amount of retroactive pay that is due the officers. The city has proposed a settlement amount of $148,830.52.

The city also agreed to dismiss its appeal of Zimmerman’s decision, even though Illinois law makes arbitration rulings final and binding unless fraud or a conflict of interest can be proven. In turn, the union agreed to waive any pay grievance retroactively.

City council members voted unanimously to approve the settlement in a special meeting held three days after it was signed by Baricevic and Jones. East St. Louis City Manager Carlos Mayfield said the 2% raises will start Jan. 1, 2022.

Rank-and-file members of East St. Louis police union, however, issued a letter back to the city on Oct. 14 flatly rejecting the settlement, stating that they were not given the opportunity to vote on it and arguing that Zimmerman’s ruling is final.

According to the letter, a digitally scanned copy of which was obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat, the officers confronted Jones and Olier with their dissatisfaction during an Oct. 13 union meeting.

“After further discussion, the members of FOP Lodge #126 expressed deep resentment for the nature and manner this signed agreement was introduced and handled,” it reads. “The members of FOP Lodge #126 vote to reject the pay raises proposed in the signed agreement between Baricevic and Jones.

“On August 2, 2021, Jackie Zimmerman, a duly recognized and appointed arbitrator, found and ordered 2% raises to be paid to the members of the East St. Louis Department Bargaining Unit (FOP Lodge #126) represented by the Fraternal Order of Police, retroactive to the previously bargained for contract.”

The letter further states that the officers consider the settlement “null and void,” since a legally binding ruling already had been made by Zimmerman.

“The arbitrator’s award is final and binding, therefore there are no more negotiations to be had or side agreements to be made in this matter. ... therefore the process going forward is litigation.”

The letter was signed by Lodge 126 President Robert Sallie, Vice President Leland Cherry and Trustee Andre Henson, none of which provided the copy obtained by the BND.

East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III said he could not comment on the negotiations, other than to confirm details spelled out in public records.

“The last thing we voted on was given to us by their attorney and agreed to by our attorney. We supported that,” East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III. “All the numbers or figures were negotiated by the two attorneys.

“The city will try to meet all of its financial responsibilities as best as we can.”

East St. Louis police officers will receive a portion of federal American Rescue Plan funds the city has received. Council members approved giving front-line city workers — including those with the police, fire and public works departments — $1 million total in back hazard pay.

Carolyn P. Smith is a reporter and Todd Eschman is an editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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