Five Saratoga Springs officers moving toward lawsuit for wages
Dispute • Employees claim they were told that they would receive a 5 percent annual raise.
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Five Saratoga Springs police officers are building a case to take to the Utah State Court of Appeals in the very likely scenario their grievance claim for four years of back salary is rejected by the city council.

In 2007, five officers, now making anywhere between $20-$26 per hour, were hired on when Saratoga Springs incorporated as a city.

One major incentive to all five of employees was a verbal agreement of a 5 percent increase in salary each year until they reached the salary cap for their position. The salary increase was honored in 2008, but that was also the last. Since that time the city has said it had cut expenses by laying off employees, freezing salaries and reducing benefits as a result of the economy.

Attorney Justin Elswick, who represents the five officers, said the salary increase was an understood agreement between the city and the officers. Elswick filed an informal request with the city requesting back wages totalling $130,000. The city replied to the initial July 5 request by stating "the setting of salaries is a discretionary, legislative decision." He says the main issue is whether the city disclosed to the officers "the fact their salary increase would be subject to wage freeze or legislative discretion."

Elswick said there were verbal and written understandings given to officers showing a diagram of how their 5 percent increase would work and a newspaper hiring ad showing the incentive.

Saratoga Springs City Attorney Kevin Thurman said the city never made a written contract on the pay raises with employees.

"The offer letters did not mention the automatic pay raise," Thurman said.

Elswick said there have been rumblings among officers who have been "questioning this for months and months" since the increases haven't been given. It didn't come to a head until this summer when attempts to resolve the matter behind closed doors failed.

The officers are going the grievance route to the city first because it is required by state law, even though their attorney isn't optimistic about its outcome.

"The challenge is the processes are pretty much arbitrary, and mandated by the city," Elswick said.

The case is in phase two of the process after filing a letter to the police chief in August. Elswick is currently waiting on a response. If that is denied, the appeal is sent onto the city manager and mayor and then the city council. If all those avenues are exhausted, then Elswick moves onto the appellate court.

The city's only response has been a news release issued on Friday refuting the officer's claims for back wages that were frozen and never granted. It states these claims are "unconscionable."

Since the process is different, so are the restrictions. Elswick said he can't subpoena documents he needs or ask questions to a defendant as an attorney would while doing formal discovery; instead he has to file an open-records request for everything that is public record.

He estimates the whole process will take until December before coming before the city council.

In the meantime, he hopes to use this time to solidify the facts of the case and ultimately prepare to sue the city.

The officers feel this is an issue about what the city did prior to hiring than it is about getting the money, Elswick said.

"It is more of an issue of a commitment…that was made to them," Elswick said. "Now the city is reneging on this because they want to keep the budget tight."

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity