In 2012, Ernell Cook, Jr. sat at the Gainesville Police Department briefing room grumbling with 18 other officers.
They groaned about long hours and understaffing.
Five years later, the drop in morale and lack of raises piled up. He looked around the same briefing room and saw only eight other people.
Cook didn’t want to leave the family he had built at GPD.
He didn’t want to leave the Gator games or his childhood friends from Gainesville High School. His 7-year-old daughter didn’t want to leave her cousins in Ocala or her first-grade friends.
But when a federal agency offered Cook a job with better pay, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Even if it meant leaving his hometown and moving his wife and daughters to Texas. So, in June 2017, he left.
Cook watched as the city management and Gainesville Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union, disagreed on contract negotiations that would raise officer salaries in 2013. It happened again three years later.
“You don’t feel appreciated by the city,” he said. “They constantly hold out in contract negotiations, and you’re not going to see a raise in three years.”
Police union members and city officials are gearing up for a day-long meeting today to settle the contract after two years of disagreement.
Union members are hoping to negotiate higher pay, better hours and overtime benefits. If the union’s demands aren’t met, the department could risk losing more officers, said police union spokesperson Matt Goeckel.
City management wants the Chief of Police to designate the hours, anywhere between eight to 12 at a time, officers work for six months at a time, according to the proposal. City management wants to stop counting paid leave, like vacations, toward overtime and propose a flat wage increase for every sworn officer.
The union wants a “step up” plan that would increase officer wages by about 2 percent every year, according to the union’s proposal. It also wants officers to be compensated overtime for attending mandatory meetings while off-duty.
The City Commission will act as a neutral judge during the public hearing, said City Commissioner David Arreola. The commissioners will make a decision on the contract after listening to both sides and public comment.
Arreola said he is in a difficult position. While he respects the police union’s efforts to do right by its officers, Arreola said he must keep the entire city in mind.
“At the end of the day, we have to be fair and equitable to everybody,” he said.
City management and the local police union renegotiate their contract every three years, said Goeckel. The most recent contract expired Sept. 30, 2016.
As disagreement continued, the union announced an impasse in May 2017, Goeckel said. An independent mediator sided with the step up plan in May 2018, but city management rejected his opinion.
GPD sworn officers have worked for the city without a contract since 2016, Goeckel said.
“When we ask for something that we think is reasonable and the city balks at it, it’s disheartening,” he said.
After six years at GPD, Cook’s salary increased from $42,000 to about $47,000. After a year of working for a federal agency in Texas, his upcoming raise will be $11,200.
The average salary of a GPD officer is $49,137. For corporals and sergeants, the average salaries are $55,390 and $65,692, respectively, said GPD spokesperson Ben Tobias.
If the cost of living didn’t outpace officer wage increases and if officers felt appreciated, Cook might have stayed, he said.
“You can’t compete with the feds,” he said. “But if the contracts were reasonable, I might have taken that sacrifice.”
GPD is allotted 307 positions, which include officers, corporals and sergeants, Tobias said. The department has 22 vacancies for officers. Twenty-nine sworn employees are in training and are unavailable to work, he said.
In the past five years, GPD lost 128 sworn officers to retirement, resignations, terminations and transfers to other agencies, Tobias said. In the same amount of time, the department hired 116 officers.
Goeckel doesn’t believe the flat wage increase will be enough to keep officers long term, he said.
“Officers feel unappreciated, and to some extent, disliked by city management,” he said.
The city’s general fund is about $126 million, according to the city manager’s budget book. Policing and fire rescue account for almost half of the general fund. GPD receives about $34.8 million.
The city has enough money to meet the union’s proposal, Tobias wrote in an open letter Sunday. He penned the letter as a police officer, not the GPD spokesperson.
Tobias is tired of the city holding his future salary like a playing card, he wrote. So tired that he’s actively looking for employment elsewhere.
Although he says he never imagined leaving Gainesville behind, Tobias feels officers are not paid enough for the work they do.
No matter the final decision, Gainesville residents will still be able to rely on GPD officers, Tobias wrote. They’ll still respond to 911 calls and respond to emergencies, but he hopes the city will show their appreciation for the work they do.
“Please take care of us,” he wrote.