State

Oakdale and police find themselves on good footing

OAKDALE -- The relationship between the city and its police force has taken significant positive turns in the last two months, with the latest good news $275,000 in federal stimulus money for the department.

That is enough to fund one police officer for three years and will be used by Oakdale to help maintain its 26-member force. The city applied for funding for five officers, hoping for any help.

The award comes about a month after the city and the force agreed on concessions that maintained staffing levels while trimming the department's budget by more than 15 percent.

The discussions that went into securing that agreement frequently were contentious and for weeks yielded little movement before a turning point May 20.

That was the night the City Council asked City Manager Steve Hallam to find out how much it would cost Oakdale to align with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for its public safety -- a move that would have eliminated the Police Department.

The request was not a bluff. The city's negotiations with the Oakdale Police Officers' Association, which represents the 26 sworn officers, were going nowhere with five weeks remaining in the fiscal year. The two sides needed to agree on concessions that were in line with cuts that had been made in every other department.

"That request brought to everybody's attention the seriousness of the situation," Hallam said. "No one wanted to look at that if we didn't have to. Oakdale has taken pride in very high-quality law enforcement. But our situation was that serious and the request did a lot to get the attention of people and underscore the need to find common ground."

Message on candy wrapper

But there may have been another turning point that began in a bowl on Hallam's desk.

During one of the bargaining sessions, held in Hallam's office, Joseph Parreira, president of the Oakdale Police Officers' Association, reached into the bowl and pulled out a piece of candy. On the inside of the wrapper were the words "It's never too late for a fresh start."

"We thought about that for a second," Parreira said. "We sat back and focused on looking out for the best interests for our members and the citizens, as well as the city, keeping all three concerns on equal ground.

"Our members and the citizens always were our largest concerns, but with agreement we've shown we're just as concerned about the city. I think we've made that step. I think the city has brought us into the fold as well."

Within four weeks, a new contract was in hand. The concessions by the officers plus the city dipping into its reserves let the department keep all of its officers. Maintaining the 26-member sworn force was the most important promise sought by the OPOA, and in exchange, the OPOA agreed to these concessions:

- Officers agreed to take 12 furlough days during the fiscal year.

- A fitness incentive plan was eliminated.

- The SWAT team was disbanded, crossing guard shifts were cut and a dispatch supervisor position was eliminated.

- A change in the departmental health plan saved $100,000.

- Reorganization within the department put more officers on patrol, which potentially could shear $100,000 in overtime costs.

The cuts weren't painless, but they resulted in job security for a force that was facing the possibility of losing as many as six badges.

"There's nothing worse than not knowing if you're going to have a job or not," said Police Chief Marty West. "Having this agreement has really helped morale. There's stability now and people know they are going to have a job."

Hallam added that the newfound ability to work quickly toward a labor agreement should bode well for future talks, because in today's economy there are no guarantees next year's budget won't require a whole new round of difficult choices.

"What we've accomplished here has done a lot to begin to build that trust," Hallam said.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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