April 28, 2014

Why should a city’s taxpayers pay the salaries of union employees?

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

The City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the police officers’ union, negotiated a contract whereby the city pays full salary and overtime for six full-time and 35 part-time employees who report to the union, and do the union’s work.  That’s an estimated $900,000 of taxpayer money to subsidize 31,000 hours of “paid release time” over two years.  These part-time union workers are not given a set amount of release time.  Instead, they are authorized to use an unspecified amount of release time to accompany fellow officers to grievance meetings, use of force hearings, etc.  For example, two union representatives (or three if one is in training) are authorized to leave their job protecting the public safety to accompany officers to grievance meetings.  PLEA receives 500 release time hours annually for a lobbyist!

Phoenix taxpayers William R. Cheatham and Marcus Huey sued, alleging that the contract violates the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition against using public money to subsidize a private organization.  The trial court judge granted a preliminary injunction, forbidding release time, then held a trial in November, 2013.  After the trial, the court declared the release time provisions unconstitutional and permanently enjoined them.  The case, Cheatham v. Gordon, is now before the Arizona Court of Appeals.  PLF filed an amicus brief today, in support of the taxpayers, arguing that the “public purpose” requirement of the Gift Clause reflects the state constitution’s overall goals of fairness and accountability.  The city has no control over release time employees, whose loyalty and services are devoted to the union, not the taxpayers.  Taxpayer funding of workers who are, as a matter of economic reality, union employees, violates the state constitutional prohibition on using public funds to benefit private organizations.

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