Minn. police chief: City will lose more officers without new, improved labor contract

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said the department is already down nearly 100 officers


By Frederick Melo
Pioneer Press
        
ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell recently warned the mayor's office that without a new police contract, the city will continue to lose officers to "other agencies that offer higher wages and more robust benefits."

"Right now, we are down nearly 100 officers from our authorized strength of 619 sworn personnel," Axtell wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Mayor Melvin Carter.

The labor contract governing wages and benefits for most of the St. Paul Police Department officially expired more than 400 days ago. Officers work under the terms of the previous contract until a new agreement is in place.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks at a news conference with lawmakers at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks at a news conference with lawmakers at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

Axtell noted Maple Grove recently approved a police contract that increases base wages by 3 percent annually, on top of a 10 percent general increase, and the state Legislature recently increased its top wage for the Minnesota State Patrol by more than 10 percent.

"As a matter of fact, this morning I met with an officer who just left the SPPD for another jurisdiction offering more money," the police chief wrote in his two-page letter. "This is something I have not experienced in my 33 years working for the SPPD."

"Because we're losing so many officers, we've seen our capacity to connect with the community, engage in innovative crime prevention efforts and give victims the attention they deserve diminish," Axtell said.

"Sadly, I don't see this trend changing any time soon."

PROTRACTED CONTRACT TALKS

Axtell recently announced he would not seek a second four-year term as police chief when his contract ends in June.

While protracted contract talks with several of the city's labor units became especially contentious last year, and in some cases seemed to barely avert authorized strikes, none have run as long as that of the police.

Critics have said cities already dedicate outsize dollars to public safety at a time when other needs are mounting.

Out of 18 city departments, the St. Paul Police Department's general budget totals more than $104 million, or nearly a third of the city's $344 million general fund budget for the year. Despite federal emergency aid during the pandemic, the city has been hard-pressed to balance the budget for city services at a time of plummeting parking meter revenue and diminished sales tax, among other budget triggers.

Others note that police have served as a front line during the pandemic and amidst rising homicide rates, and at a time of record inflation, they should be compensated accordingly.

'THAT PROCESS IS UNDERWAY'

In January, the St. Paul City Council held a closed-door session to discuss sending contract negotiations to a mediator or to arbitration.

"That process is underway," said Council President Amy Brendmoen on Friday. "The council sent a strong message this year that we want to level out our staffing, and the first thing was having two police academies for 2022. They just announced the first one."

Brendmoen acknowledged, however, "these good city jobs are not as competitive as they used to be, and I think that's going to be the 800-pound gorilla in budget talks for the next five years."
  
(c)2022 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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