Just when it appeared negotiations might go off the rails, the city and Galveston’s police union demonstrated they could and would bargain in good faith over pay raises.

The Galveston Municipal Police Association and city officials verbally agreed Tuesday to a deal that will increase police pay beginning Jan. 1.

How much depends on an officer’s rank. The scale was derived from the average of an agreed-upon comparison of similar police departments.

The police union also agreed to a minimum 2 percent increase in year two of the contract for a cost-of-living adjustment and to reopen the contract to determine a new market average at the contract’s third year.

The verbal agreement was a good sign in negotiations that showed so many signs of going badly.

The union, for example, had commissioned a billboard declaring the island “Home of the Worst Police Retirement in Texas,” which was a statement about a long and sometimes heated effort between the Galveston police pension board and the city to reform an ailing pension system. It was meant to shame the city at a time when the police department was attempting to recruit more experienced officers.

The billboard, over the northbound lane of Interstate 45 near the intersection with state Highway 146, was strategically positioned for thousands of people to see daily.

While the pension talks were happening, there was a campaign by media consultant Wayne Dolcefino, a former TV reporter known for his aggressive approach and for supporting the police union.

Dolcefino Consulting bills itself as a “wartime” media consulting firm, “hired by companies, law firms, and private citizens and taxpayers to expose injustice, fraud and abuse of power.”

With negotiations to reform the city’s ailing police pension system stalled earlier this year, Dolcefino launched a campaign arguing the city’s police cars were too old and too few and its retirement benefits too meager.

Dolcefino’s news releases didn’t paint the whole picture, Police Chief Vernon Hale said at the time. But they certainly set a tone.

The posts were part of a familiar tactic the police union employed when collective bargaining neared, City Manager Brian Maxwell said at the time.

And this week, here was Dolcefino again. The police union insisted the most recent round of collective bargaining, which began last week, shouldn’t be at city hall and shouldn’t be broadcast over the city’s municipal cable and internet channels.

On Monday, a contractor for Dolcefino began video recording the negotiations. In response, a city spokeswoman began recording the negotiations on her phone and broadcasting it on the city’s Facebook page. Things weren’t looking good.

No one paid Dolcefino to dispatch a videographer and the feed wasn’t broadcast live, Dolcefino said Monday. Still, it was a provocative move and city representatives feared the video from Dolcefino’s contractor could be edited to spin, rather than inform. It was beginning to look as if the negotiations could end in an impasse.

Instead, discussions took an encouraging turn.

While police wanted a pay raise that immediately brought officers to an average rate near that of others in the market, the city couldn’t afford that until later in the year, said Lowell Denton, a San Antonio attorney representing the city.

“At some point you have to pay attention to where the money comes from,” Denton said.

The city faces increased costs from health care and the police pension and is anticipating a state-mandated tax cap on property tax revenue growth beginning in fiscal year 2021, which will likely curb city revenue.

The city might be able to grant police a pay raise based on the market average later in the fiscal year, likely in 2020, Denton said. The city is taking time to again analyze the pay rates of officers in other cities, including Pearland, League City, Texas City and San Marcos, Denton said.

As part of the bargaining, the city and police association agreed to a list of what cities with which to compare Galveston.

Talks resume Tuesday, and police have other bargaining points. It’s not over until they ink the deal. But the verbal agreement over pay, one of the biggest issues, is a very good sign.

We urge both sides to continue on the productive course they set with the initial agreement and avoid taking a “wartime” posture.

• Laura Elder

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

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