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Police, fire recruiting numbers rise after passage of new labor law

Nathaniel Herz

After the Anchorage Assembly passed a sweeping rewrite of city labor law last spring, members of the local police and fire unions warned that there would be consequences: fewer people would apply for public safety jobs, leading to a less-qualified, understaffed workforce.

The new law limited pay raises, banned strikes and restricted bonuses for most categories of city workers.

Combined with earlier state cutbacks to retirement packages, union officials said, the less generous compensation would drive aspiring cops and firefighters to seek employment in other cities where their work was more highly valued.

So far, however, that doesn't appear to be the case. Figures released by the city this week show that applications to both departments' academies this year are up since the last hiring period, in 2011.

In both cases, the comparisons aren't completely analogous. Police officials said the department left its hiring process open longer this year, ultimately netting 1,100 applicants versus 895 in 2011. It's also not clear that 28 successful candidates will emerge to fill the police academy that begins in November.

While the Fire Department had 533 applicants qualify to take its written test this year, those prospective employees were not required to hold an Alaska training certificate, as they did in 2011 when 457 applied. And of those 533, just 243 showed up to take the written test, versus 303 who did so in 2011.

Still, officials in the administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan, who spearheaded the rewrite of the labor law, said that it doesn't appear that prospective workers are being scared off.

"I didn't notice any trend of concern here," said Danielle Fegley, the city's director of labor relations, citing the total number of applications and the proportion of applicants advancing through the hiring process.

As the Assembly considered and then passed the new labor law this spring, critics argued that the measure would make the city a less attractive place to work.

That argument gained credence when police Chief Mark Mew and fire Chief Chris Bushue acknowledged that their departments were running behind on recruiting. But in Mew's case, it turned out that he was relying on inaccurate data, he said in an interview.

"We had an apples and oranges thing going on there," Mew said.

In interviews, union officials argued that it will take more time for the effects of the new labor law to set in, since both the police and fire departments are operating under contracts put in place before passage of the ordinance.

"I don't know that we can actually feel the impact of it yet," said Nick Glorioso, the recording secretary of the city firefighters union. "Right now, it's just a bad idea."

Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage police union, also argued that the large batch of applications would not translate into a full class of qualified recruits. He said he expects the city will be unable to fill its police academy with 28 people.

"I'm not worried about inputs -- I'm worried about outcomes," Hsieh said.

Mew said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the academy would be full, but statistics released by the city late Friday showed that only 26 applicants had made it through preliminary testing to the final background and polygraph stages.

Union officials also argued that Anchorage would soon see an increase in retirements and resignations from the police and fire departments. The new labor law has strained relations with workers here, they said, and other cities offer guaranteed pension plans rather than 401(k) savings accounts.

Typically, 20 officers leave the police force annually, Mew said. But just this month, one officer retired, and another three resigned their positions -- as did four other "non-sworn" employees.

Mew said some departures could be attributed to a quirk in an agreement the city made with the police union several years that gave an incentive for some officers to leave the force before January 2014, and so it was difficult to judge whether the labor law was a factor.

"I don't think any of us can say, except for the people who are actually leaving," he said. "No one has sent me a letter saying: 'I respectfully resign my position because I hate this new ordinance.' "

Mew added, however, that the police will need more recruits than those that emerge from November's academy, and the department plans to begin a new hiring process next month.

If the city does ultimately end up with higher turnover, that could mean more money spent on recruiting and training, said Paul Honeman, the chair of the Assembly's public safety committee and a former police lieutenant.

"I don't think we can afford, in my community, to even try to go down the path of accepting that we're money ahead with the short-term employee," said Honeman, who voted against the labor law rewrite. "They pick up their suitcase and take their satchel of money with them and go to another agency -- they're taking the money that we as a community spent to train them."

But Fegley, the labor relations director, said she hadn't seen any evidence of that problem.

"The municipality's had a real stable workforce over the course of the last several years," she said. "That trend seems to be the same."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.