Sparks fly at latest ACSO-union negotiation

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and the North Central Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) will continue negotiations for its deputies’ contract after failing to reach an agreement during Thursday talks that at times grew contentious.

The two groups tried to solidify the 2021-22 contract last year, but PBA deputies voted against the deal. The contract should have started Oct. 1. Negotiations will restart after the ACSO meets with the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on May 3.

In March, the disagreements between the union and sheriff’s office peaked when the PBA filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. for unfair labor practices that centered on the union negotiations.

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On Thursday, PBA President Jody Branaman again accused Watson of undermining trust in the process after the sheriff’s office withdrew elements of its December offer, which the PBA considered settled.

“I disagree that that’s bargaining in good faith,” Branaman said. “I disagree that that’s what the sheriff has told us in writing, that he’s not going to take anything off the table to provide another benefit.”

Major Bobby Stafford, who negotiated for the sheriff, said the process requires give and take. 

“Sometimes we take small steps backward to move forward, and we’ve seen that in the past with the PBA here at this agency,” he said. 

Entering Thursday’s negotiations, four of the articles for the deputies’ contract remained open. However, the PBA and sheriff’s office had settled on tentative agreements for three of the four.

But the sheriff’s office proposed new changes to three of the four articles related to holidays, pay and take-home vehicles. Article 18 on continuing education remained the same, providing up to $2,000 in upfront payment per year instead of $1,500 in reimbursement from previous years.

For Article 15 on take-home vehicles, the ACSO offered to add current deputies who live outside the county and failed to meet the Sept. 20 deadline to apply for the vehicle take-home program.

But moving forward, new deputies living in other counties would need to apply for permission to take their vehicles home. The sheriff would grant that permission on a case-by-case basis.

The program acts as a crime deterrent, can decrease response time and boosts pride, according to Stafford.

For Article 16 on leave, the office eliminated two proposed additional holidays currently allowed for civilian employees and supervisors. The holidays were offered at the end of last year, but deputies voted against the contract as a whole.

Even though the two extra holidays haven’t officially been in the contract for deputies, Sheriff Watson did give all staff one of those—Juneteenth—off last year.

Branaman said the ACSO needs better incentives to keep employees, yet the office is cutting back on items that would help deputy retention—holidays and take-home vehicles.

Stafford admitted that the ACSO knows it needs to improve and has a plan in place to put the office ahead of other counties. But he added that law enforcement numbers continue to decline nationwide.

“There’s a reason agencies are basically poaching from other agencies,” Stafford said.

For Article 23 on pay, the office proposed to keep all deputies on the same pay step number but increase the base step salary by 3 percent—above the usual 2.5 percent increase. So a deputy on salary step 6 would stay on step 6 for the year, but the base step 6 salary would increase that 3 percent.

However, Stafford asked to strike certain language from the section that would have allowed deputies to both receive the next step and have all steps rise in base pay. He added that the office wanted to remain open when it goes before the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) for approval.

The ACSO needs approval from the commission each year for its salary step program. Stafford said the office is hopeful to gain a good-sized bump for the deputies and agreed to make the new salaries retroactive to Oct. 1.

But the PBA said the language had been included in October to keep the ACSO from going back on a promise that lacked a legal basis. The PBA added that the sheriff’s office showed little trust when it tried to change articles the PBA considered finished.

Branaman said Watson had already agreed to keep the two holiday articles as negotiated earlier and called the changes punitive.

Stafford said the four articles could remain part of the give-and-take nature negotiations because they stayed open. He added that the sheriff had agreed to put the extra holidays back on the table for the next contract.

Because the groups have yet to reach a consensus, negotiations for the 2022-23 contract will start soon. The ACSO and PBA were scheduled to tackle the contract on Thursday but never reached it.

The PBA filed a public records request to see how many deputies used the education incentive, and Branaman said the union would prefer a reduction in that article in order to bolster one of the others.

“Our members would be more than willing to give up that increase to the benefit—give up that $500 dollars—to keep the holidays,” Branaman said. “That’s time with their family; that’s money in their pocket.”

Stafford said an exchange wouldn’t be possible this year but could be considered for the 2022-23 contract. But deputies will receive extra money in their pockets through an action already taken by the BOCC, providing a $1,000 one-time bonus.

According to the ACSO legal counsel, the BOCC approved a $1,000 salary increase for staff workers, but ACSO deputies fall outside that category. The commission agreed to the bonus for ACSO instead.

Ultimately, the two failed to reach an agreement on Thursday, allowing time for Watson to meet with the BOCC to see what the office will get. The PBA and ACSO will then reconvene to finish negotiations on the deputies.

On Friday, though, the two sides will meet again to discuss the contract for supervisors. Unlike deputies, supervisors approved their 2021-22 contract and only need to work on 2022-23.

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