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Voters go to polls for May 4th police pay referendum

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, Reporter: Mike Buehler has fought fires in Dallas for 15 years. Now, he's fighting for a raise. Buehler is the president of the Dallas Firefighters Association, which has more than 1,000 members. Its new recruits earn $33,000. That's 13% higher than what they were earning two years ago. But they still can make more money in a dozen other North Texas cities. And Buehler says they're leaving Dallas to do just that. He gives an example from a recent training class.

Mike Buehler, President, Dallas Firefighters Association: We had two individuals who took their final paramedic test on Monday and the following Sunday they went to work for another fire department in this area making more money. So the citizens of Dallas paid them for the 16 months they were in training. They paid for all that training and then they never got one shift of work from those individuals.

Sprague: That's why Buehler and police representatives are asking voters to approve a 17% across-the-board raise on May 4th.

Buehler: The way we see it, it's a very simple question. Do the citizens of Dallas deserve quality fire and EMS service? And if the citizens deserve that, then don't the individuals who provide that quality service deserve a competitive wage? And that's all we're asking.

Sprague: But the members of the Dallas City Council say it's not that simple.

[Ambient sound of people milling around as a photographer begins to snap pictures]

Sprague: They posed just a few weeks ago for a picture slated to appear in a "vote no" campaign brochure. Although one councilman joked the photo would likely end up as the bull's eye on a police dartboard, the group was united in its opposition to the 17% raise. Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill says the raise would cost the city $60 million.

Dallas City Councilman Don Hill: We just can't afford it. Simply put, $60 million for a 17% increase would result in a drastic reduction in services.

Sprague: Council members say they'd either have to lay off 1300 city employees or raise property taxes 14%. That means the average homeowner in Dallas would pay almost $100 more per year. So, they've proposed an alternative: a 15% raise over three years. But Mike Buehler with the firefighters says the Council's 5-5-5 offer only sounds good on paper.

Buehler: Well, if they're offering 15% over 3 years, we don't think they're with us. What most citizens don't understand is, they can't guarantee the last two years of that because we cannot sign a contract, so that's one of the things that does matter. They can't bind upcoming city councils.

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller: Well, most of the council members who signed that resolution are going to be back and this group of people is not going to go back on its word. And if I'm here after next year, then I certainly wouldn't go back on my word.

Sprague: Dallas Mayor Laura Miller campaigned for office promising a police and firefighter pay raise. But she opposes the May 4th referendum because she says it's too much at one time. And, if it passes, she says the Council won't be able to put more than about $250 million on the ballot for a fall bond election.

Miller: Well, how can we consider doing anything bigger and raising property taxes if we're being forced to raise property taxes by the police and fire raise. So we are stuck in a holding pattern until we have this May 4th election to see what happens at the polls.

Sprague: Miller also notes that most of the proposed increase would actually fund the salaries of mid- and executive-level officers, including a $23,000 raise for Chief Terrell Bolton. But Dallas Police Association President Glenn White says if the school superintendent deserves a $300,000 salary, there's no reason the police chief, even one embroiled in a fake drug scandal, shouldn't make half that.

Dallas Police Association President Glenn White: And I would venture to say that if Bennie Click were still the chief of police in Dallas, Texas, this wouldn't be an issue right now. - [Sprague] It's just political? - [White] It's very political. They look at Chief Bolton as an Achilles Heel that they feel they can attack because if Bennie Click was here, they wouldn't be attacking Bennie Click.

Sprague: Despite the pay dispute, both council members and public safety representatives say they'll shake hands on May 5th and move forward with other issues. In fact, the Council will be briefed next month on whether to pay police officers who take military leave. Early voting for the May 4th referendum ends Tuesday. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

Suzanne Sprague can be contacted through email: