TARPON SPRINGS — After nearly six months and six rounds of negotiations, Tarpon Springs officials and representatives of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association had reached an impasse on a new collective bargaining agreement for the Tarpon Springs Police Department.

The stalemate forced both parties to participate in a special impasse hearing Oct. 12 in order to resolve three elements of the CBA, which expired Sept. 30. The union was requesting a 3% general wage increase for each of the department’s 53 sworn officers; the assignment of a 5% base hour rate increase for detectives; and a provision that would empower department officials, including Chief Robert Kochen, to move certain officers, including school resource officers and community police officers, from a 40-hour to a 42-hour work week.

After a brief discussion at the start of the four-hour session, the sides agreed on the last provision, and because the city had already agreed to the 3% wage increase — the same pay increase awarded to every city employee following the recent budget sessions — the main sticking point became the city’s desire to freeze the department’s step plan, a mechanism that allows officers to gradually increase their salary as their careers progress, during the first year of the three-year deal, with officials citing the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the budget.

“COVID has had an extreme impact on the revenues of the city,” said Erin Jackson, an attorney representing the city, noting City Manager Mark LeCouris and his staff “dug deep to find areas in the budget to freeze” due to the effects of the crisis. “Management is simply asking for one year at a flat 3% so that we have time to ride this wave and see what happens, hopefully on the other side of COVID.”

The suggestion to halt a bonus program that tenured officers work hard to achieve was not well received by the union, as SCPBA attorney Sasha Lohn said all they were asking for was what the officers deserve.

“These men and women are just asking for their old contract as written,” Lohn said. “No changes to the step plan, no shift differential, no special health care incentive, no changes to their other benefits. This isn’t some complex negotiating strategy. We’re asking for what we need and nothing more.”

Lohn noted the union’s request was reasonable based on competing law enforcement agencies in the area, and Detective Chris Lemmon backed up that point and cautioned against the potential consequences.

“At the end of the day, if we’re not competitive in salary and pay with surrounding departments, we risk recruiting officers to come to Tarpon … or we’re going to really struggle to retain that qualified and experienced officer that this city invest so much into for training,” said Lemmon, the department’s union representative. “We’re going to lose that because they’re going to end up going to these other departments that pay significantly more and provide benefits that simply don’t exist at Tarpon Springs Police Department.”

Lemmon noted a sixth-year detective in Tarpon Springs makes $42,000 less than a sixth-year detective in Tampa, and he said TSPD is “not competitive with anyone in Tampa or Pinellas County” when it comes to certain benefits and specialty pay, a situation that could result in difficulty recruiting and retaining officers down the road.

“When you’re going to high stress calls … you’re getting someone that potentially has 15-20 years of experience, possibly has S.W.A.T. experience. That’s the person you want going to an active shooter (call),” he said. “You don’t want someone that’s only been here one year trying to find their footing as a police officer … and if you don’t provide competitive salaries and benefits you lose those officers that basically are the leaders of your police department.”

At that point there was still hours of testimony and many comments yet to be heard on both sides, but when it came time to vote on the item, the four commissioners in attendance unanimously agreed to the union’s demands, with Vice-Mayor Jacob Karr taking a strong stance in ruling in the department’s favor.

“I really believe that police departments across the United States have really been not respected like they should be, and I’m willing to stand up tonight and push it further and say we need to go ahead and compensate,” he said. “And I think this is a good way to go ahead and say thank you for what you’ve done.”

Mayor Chris Alahouzos agreed.

“I’d like to express my support and gratitude to our police officers,” he said. “I think they’re doing a fantastic job protecting our properties and the people of Tarpon Springs. With that, I’m going to support the request of the police department.”

With that, the motion to approve the CBA contract per the union’s request for FY 2021 was approved by a vote of 4-0. Commissioner Townsend Tarapani was absent and excused from the meeting.

After the first impasse hearing in the city’s history, Alahouzos spoke about the decision.

“This was a contract negotiation, and impasse hearing that was very unique in Tarpon as we’ve never had one before, and I’m glad it’s over and we reached the decision we did,” Alahouzos said. “I said at the beginning we’re all proud of the police department. They do a very good job protecting the residents and the property of Tarpon Springs, and so I feel pretty good we reached an agreement and the department is happy. They’re not there for the wages, they’re there because they love what they do, putting their lives on the line constantly, so I feel good it’s finished, and the police officers feel good about it.”

When asked for comment Kochen also noted the uniqueness of the situation but he said both sides have the utmost respect for one another.

“It’s a very rare situation to have something like this happen, but it can happen,” Kochen said by phone, noting they had never had an impasse hearing during his 31 years with the department. “But both sides have a tremendous amount of respect for each other and everything was very professional on both sides, we just had a gap in some of the items in the first year of the contract and we’re glad the commission decided to bridge those gaps.”

He also noted the two parties were getting ready to finalize the last two years of the contract since the issues were only with the first year of the deal.

“We’re in the process of going back to the table to work on the other years of the contract now, and we expect to bring the final agreement back to the commission for approval very soon,” he said.