Pressed on all sides by a $2 million-a-year squeeze, the Mammoth Town Council Wednesday questioned if it pays its cops too much.
“I did some research on my own,” said Mayor Matthew Lehman during a 40-minute discussion with Police Chief Dan Watson, “and I’m not an expert, but I looked at some other towns of similar in size and similar in capacity and looked at what their budgets were … and the one thing I found was that some of them had 27, 30 officers, but had a budget that was smaller than ours.
“The price they’re paying officers is half of what we’re paying, and that raised an eyebrow for me.”
Mayor Pro Tem Rick Wood said he had similar concerns.
“When you have a police officer at the bottom of the pay scale with a pay and benefits package of $150,000, which is what we have, and going up to $260,000, excluding yourself as chief, the question may not be whether we have too many officers and whether we should cut positions.
“The question perhaps should be whether or not the compensation packages should be adjusted.”
The compensation discussion was part of a larger question of whether it is realistic to cut seven officers from a force of 17 sworn staff in order to help meet a deficit caused by the town’s $29.5 million, $2 million deal with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition.
That was just one part of a nearly four-hour meeting that had to do with many items, including the closure of the Whitmore pool.
But the hot-button issue clearly was what to do with the police budget.
Watson delivered an impassioned defense of his officers, citing plans to shore up the force with Level II and Level III support, but he also said that to cut that many officers from the MLPD would be dangerous.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to guarantee the safety of the public, but I can say that people would be jeopardized,” Watson said. “Our District Attorney, Tim Kendall, says his concern is that we’ll have an increase of crimes that will go unsolved and that crime will go up.
“There will be incidents in town that we can’t respond to,” Watson said, “or our response will be very delayed.
“I know people in the community say we don’t have a lot of crime and we don’t need as many officers as we have. I think you have to ask yourself why that’s the case. Part of the reason is that we have a committed Police Department with officers who care about the community, and we do a lot of things that are preventative.
“You can’t measure when crime is prevented, but sometimes it’s because of proactive work by the police. Police presence does reduce crime.”
But Wood steered the discussion another way, leaving the issue of cuts to focus on the cost of the officers Mammoth already has.
In so doing, Wood placed the discussion squarely in the lap of the Police Officers Association, the union group that has a negotiated contract in place.
“I understand what the restrictions are,” Wood said. “We have a police union that up to this point in the discussion, which we’ve only begun, doesn’t want to re-open the contract.
“If I were making $250,000, I wouldn’t want to re-open a contract, either. If I could retire at 50 with life expectancy of another 35 years, and receive 90 percent of my three highest years of pay for the rest of my life, and with various benefits to go along with it, I’m not sure I’d want to give any of that up. That seems to be human nature.
“I don’t blame a single police officer for that position. But the point is that the Police Officers Association has an alternative within its control—the power, if you will—to reduce the number of layoffs.
“I just put it out there because it’s not out there. I’m not taking a position on that yet, but I think it needs to be part of the dialog.”
Watson, who as chief is not part of the POA, shot back, implying the council was playing with fire.
“I can’t speak for what the POA expects, but I can say they have agreed to concessions in the past,” Watson said.
“The trend throughout California is what we’re seeing here. I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. The benefits our officers have gotten have gone down; at one time the benefit package was higher than normal. Now I’d say it’s very typical.
“I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but the reality is that when we have vacancies—and I can tell you that many officers are looking elsewhere and not just those at the bottom of the seniority pool—we could end up, when this is all over, having vacancies because we’ll lose more officers than whatever ends up being the final decision here.”