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A sign erected at the home of a Roswell police officer has struck the community with concern after alleging the city does not support public safety.

At the corner of West Eighth Street and North Sycamore Avenue, what appears to be a hazard sign “warns” drivers of the city’s apparent high homicide rate, even stating it to be two-and-a-half times greater than Albuquerque.

The signage was placed by the Roswell Police Officers’ Association’s president, Donald O’Connor, who said it was placed to create both dialogue and an involvement in the city.

The RPOA’s issue against the city centers on an ongoing pay dispute between the union and the city, which is likely to go to arbitration in May.

“This sign was put up Friday,” O’Connor said. “There was another sign that was put up two weeks earlier in the exact same location. It wasn’t staked down properly, that’s my fault. The wind blew it around and tore it up, so I had to take it down.”

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O’Connor said a few months ago, the RPOA had a similar sign on the video billboard near the corner of North Main Street and Wilshire Boulevard.

“It flashed every once and a while,” he said. “I didn’t get half the remarks that I’m getting now because of this sign. This one 4-by-8 has caused more talk than that entire lit up billboard did for a month in four days.”

O’Connor clarified the sign is not designed to communicate negativity.

“I’m not saying Roswell is a horribly bad community to live it, by any means,” O’Connor said. “What I’m saying is the number of officers we have here deal with twice the crime rate of Albuquerque — that’s all I’m saying. If we could get a handle on that, we wouldn’t have an issue. But with the number of officers we have, and the budget that we have — it’s difficult.”

In a statement by Joe Neeb, the Roswell City Manager said the city supports each and every police officer within its employment.

“The city of Roswell is confused with the allegations and position of the Roswell Police Officers’ Association,” Neeb said. “Both parties are currently in arbitration due to differences of opinions regarding the agreement. The information stated on the sign could not be verified and is believed to be placed there for political reasons just in time for the local election. ”

When asked by the Daily Record, O’Connor made it clear the RPOA is not backing any candidates in the upcoming municipal election.

“We are not endorsing any city council, we are not endorsing any mayoral candidates — we are not endorsing anyone,” he said. “We put it to a vote and agreed that it would be in the best interest of the RPOA to not endorse anyone.

“What we feel is that, if we’re going to back a particular candidate, then we need to know they’re going to back us. And in the past years, with city council, mayors, and everyone else, they say they’re going to back us and then when push comes to shove, they kind of back off a little bit. They may be very vocal in certain areas, but in a whole, they’re kind of on the fence, and we felt it was in the best interest to not endorse any candidates at all.”

Mayoral candidate Del Jurney and Ward 3 City Council candidate Richard Garcia candidate have capitalized on the sign via social media.

Neeb also tackled the sign’s information, which he said pointed viewers to allegations that police officers have been leaving the city due to being overworked and underpaid.

“In 2015, the city completed an independent market study that identified the need to adjust many of the positions to a regional standard,” Neeb said. “The City Council approved an increase of the certified police officer grade by 18.4 percent, increasing the minimum hourly wage from $17.22 to $21.10.

“In 2016, the City Council approved an increase to the scale by an inflation rate of 1.5 percent, which raised the minimum hourly rate to $21.42.

“In 2017, the city provided all employees, including the police department a 3 percent step increase in their salary.

“At the end of 2017, the City Council approved an additional half-percent to each employee’s wage. This increase was refused by the RPOA. In the newly adopted salary scale, the City Council doubled the maximum rate of pay for every police officer position. This means an employee can participate in a full career with the city rather than topping out in salary within 10 years.”

Neeb said, in reference to allegations of RPD officers being overworked, a 2017 review of overtime instead revealed the average use of overtime was 4.93 hours for each workweek per employee.

“This is not considered excessive,” Neeb said. “In reviewing RPD information from December 2017, a total of five, or 26 percent, of those who left the department within that year were terminated or resigned in lieu of termination. There were nine who resigned for various other reasons throughout the year. Based upon the exit interviews, most resigned to live closer to family. We lost five of our department personnel to retirements.”

O’Connor said in reference to the statistic listed on the sign which compares the city’s homicide rate to Albuquerque, the data comes from Roswell’s combined average from 2012 to 2016 and is per 100,000. The info also comes from City-Data.com, not the Roswell Police Department directly.

“In 2012, the homicide rate on City-Data, per capita, the city of Roswell’s crime rate was 2.2 times higher than Albuquerque,” O’Connor said. “In 2013, it was 1.9 times, 2014 it was 3.05, 2015, it was 2.6, 2016 it was 3.2. Overall, it’s two-and-a-half times higher.”

A closer analysis of the social networking website shows that Roswell had eight listed murders in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and 12 in 2016. Albuquerque, on the other hand, had 41, 30, 43 and 61 murders during the same years, according to City-Data.com.

O’Connor continued, saying what he is trying to do is get more people involved.

“This has caused more people to get involved with Facebook and all the other social media stuff than we have in the last five years,” O’Connor said. “More people see this — more people want to talk about it.”

O’Connor said issues at the Roswell Police Department pertain to its budget constantly being cut over the last few years.

“Our training budget’s cut. Our recruiting budget, the funding that we have for equipment — all that stuff,” he said. “If the city doesn’t have the money for one thing or another, OK, fine, I understand that. But you still have to have money for your fire department — for your police department.”

O’Connor said he is uncertain whether going forward to city council would be beneficial to the RPOA.

“What needs to happen is — to get people that are of the mindset that public safety is important,” O’Connor said. “The amount of money that you put towards public safety is important.

“That’s what the sign (means) to me, is get involved. Understand what’s going on in your community. Know that there’s more out there than the four walls of your house, the four walls of your office, and the drive in-between.

“The officers within the Roswell Police Department are committed to maintaining a safe community as the best we can. Every officer within the police department is committed to doing their job to the best of their ability. We would do this job for free if free would pay the bills, but it doesn’t. That’s the whole issue.”

O’Connor said, when the arbitration does happen, it still doesn’t mean the city has to reallocate funds to pay.

“Even if we win, we still may not get any money out of the situation. We still may not get what we are fighting for,” he said. “That’s where we’re at right now. We can only go to arbitration. Once we go to arbitration, we’re done.

“We can’t go any further than that other than trying to get people to talk to city council, to talk to mayoral can — the mayor, to talk to people that actually do control the funding, because the city council has to approve the budget every year.”

While O’Connor agrees that the city supports the RPD, he said it’s only to a certain extent.

“I don’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel,” O’Connor said. “Partly because every time we go to arbitration or a meeting or anything, something comes up and it gets pushed back.”

Step increases

According to the RPOA, the third instance in which the city did not provide an annual step increase to RPD officers was on July 1, 2017.

In a previous statement from Neeb, the city manager said the city and union reached a resolution to fund the step increases for the final portion of the 2017 fiscal year, which ended June 30. Neeb said an impasse was experienced during negotiations regarding step increases in the 2018 fiscal year, which began July 1.

O’Connor spoke about the instances beforehand where Roswell’s previous city manager did not follow through.

“Multiple years in the past, the city has promised one thing or another, and then not followed through with those promises,” O’Connor said. “The city manager at the time, Polasek — Steve Polasek, he and the Roswell Police Officers’ Association, actually agreed to contract where a step increase would be in place for officers every year, so on their anniversary date, they would get a step increase.

However, O’Connor said due to officers’ anniversary dates being “all over the place,” the city wanted to make more general across the board.

“In this situation, the city, or the city manager, Polasek, agreed to those step increases,” O’Connor said. “Those were put into contract. And then in January of 2017, we did not receive those step increases. The officers that were eligible for their step increase in January did not receive their step increase.”

O’Connor said as a result, he filed a grievance with the city.

“Once that grievance went through the process, we settled that grievance in April, and they went ahead and implemented the step increases in April, and that was part of the agreement,” O’Connor said. “Then in July, we were supposed to get a step increase as well. We did not get a step increase then either.

“The step increases in July did not take effect until September, so the city is promising to pay ‘x’ amount of money for the step increases, but then, whenever the step increases are actually supposed to be paid, they’re like, ‘No, we’re not going to pay that.’

“Every time that they would promise something, then, a couple of months down the line, they’re like, ‘No, we’re not going to pay it.’ ”

The RPOA president said those who were eligible did get their step increases in January.

“I think that was partly because they didn’t want to have to deal with another contract violation or grievance,” O’Connor said. “I don’t for sure because I wasn’t in the meetings or anything, but the step increases were paid.”

O’Connor said at the end of negotiations between the union and city, an agreement still hasn’t been reached.

In a separate issue, the RPOA president had also filed a Prohibited Practices Complaint (PPC) against the city for not getting the step increases in July.

Roswell’s city attorney, Aaron Holloman explained the process that accompanies filing a PPC filed with the Labor Management Relations Board.

“The Labor Management Relations Board then has the ability to hold a hearing and make findings about whether or not there was a violation of the contract,” Holloman said. “So that one, they had filed that complaint alleging that the city had violated the contract in not giving the step increases in July.

“So that Prohibited Practices Complaint has been dismissed. The arbitration though, that is when we’re in negotiations for a new contract and have not been able to reach an agreement about a new contract, so the Prohibited Practices is violation of an existing contract, impasse arbitration is when we’re trying to negotiate a new contract and haven’t been able to come to an agreement.”

Holloman said the arbitrator, the one who then selects between either the union’s last best offer or the city’s last best offer on the dispute was scheduled for Thursday but was rescheduled due to personal issues pertaining to the RPOA’s attorney, Frederick M. Mowrer.

Holloman explained the agreement the city is currently negotiating with the RPOA on only covers economic portions.

“In 2019, by the terms of the old agreement, we have to renegotiate the entire agreement, so 2019 is the same thing all over again,” Holloman said. “That makes the timeline really tight for what we’re trying to negotiate right now, especially now that it’s been moved to May.”

The newspaper lastly asked Holloman if the signage posted by the RPOA somehow moves the process along faster.

“I would say the election escalates the process more than anything else,” he said. “That ends up being a component that everybody has to factor into whenever you’re discussing the negotiations, because ultimately the city council is the one who has to sign off on any agreement, so with the election, you don’t really have an idea of who exactly is going to be signing off until everything is done (Tuesday), so that definitely makes it a complicating factor.”

Multimedia-Crime reporter Trevier Gonzalez can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.