A city councilman’s call to end public safety sick-time sell-backs has the police union accusing him of political retaliation.

The head of the Tucson Police Officers Association sent an open letter to the membership yesterday claiming Councilman Steve Kozachik’s crusade to end the city’s $2.5 million a year sick-leave sell-back program is retribution for the union pulling its endorsement of him in the last election.

But Kozachik asserts the union is engaging in heavy-handed tactics to intimidate him from pursuing an end to the program — tactics, he said, that include an investigation into his private life by requesting his salary information from the University of Arizona.

The current rift builds on hard feelings from last spring, when Kozachik opposed giving employees a 55 cent an hour pay raise.

Kozachik considered a pay hike, adding $11 million to the city’s budget, irresponsible amid the city’s myriad budget woes. The union viewed it as an attack on labor and pulled its endorsement of Kozachik’s reelection bid.

Tensions resurfaced about a month ago after Kozachik started seeking an end to public safety employees’ sick-leave sell-back program, where veteran police and fire employees can sell up to 208 hours a year in unused sick leave.

TPOA President William Bonanno called Kozachik a “vengeful politician” who was trying to overturn last year’s pay raises by taking away a benefit designed to keep police and fire pay competitive with other agencies.

“You can label it inflated sick-leave sell-back. You can call it employee overtime problems. But the result is the same. It is the systematic attempt to take hard earned money away from dedicated city employees,” Bonanno wrote.

The union knew its relationship with Kozachik was strained when an expletive-laden phone call from one his staffers came after the union decided to pull its endorsement in 2013, Bonanno said.

Bonanno inferred Kozachik was a hypocrite for voting against pay raises for city employees in the same year he received a “healthy raise” from the University of Arizona, which hiked his pay to just under $80,000. If you include his council pay, Kozachik pulls in $104,000 a year in taxpayer-funded salary, or more than double the $45,900 starting salary of a police officer, Bonanno said.

“Talk about double-dipping and spiking,” Bonanno wrote.

In addition to his salary, Kozachik receives an array of generous benefits from the university, including sick-leave sell-back, Bonanno said.

Kozachik rebutted Bonanno’s numbers.

Instead of a pay raise, Kozachik said the university cut his salary by 10 percent when he assumed office due to an anticipated decrease in hours. He said his salary is about $71,000 a year. Kozachik said the university, like most employers, doesn’t allow its employees to sell back their unused sick days.

Elizabeth Baker, a university spokeswoman, confirmed there is no buy back program. But the university does pay employees for its unused sick days when they retire.

As for the phone call his staffer made, Kozachik called the allegation his staffer ranted and raved in a phone call to the union a “complete fabrication.”

While they are entitled to their beliefs, Kozachik the union’s tactics should be a concern.

“If they are this unbalanced, maybe they shouldn’t be running around town with guns and billy clubs,” he said.

He said the union’s misuse of information raises doubt on how officers conduct other internal investigations, such as the recent handling of the University of Arizona riots.

“What other facts are they playing fast and loose with to protect their interests?” Kozachik said.

Kozachik said he will continue to push for an end to the program.

“We’re laying people off. We’re not fixing our roads and parks,” Kozachik said. “But police and fire employees are walking away with $2.6 million a year. That’s fundamentally wrong.”

Bonanno vowed resistance, saying, “We will never allow (Kozachik) to balance the city’s budget on the back of the hardworking men and women who wake up everyday to care for this community. It is bad enough that our officers face danger on the streets every day; they should not have to worry about a rogue councilman constantly threatening their pay and benefits.”

CHANGE seen as needed

Other council members see a need for change, but not as radical as Kozachik seeks.

Councilwoman Regina Romero said she supports changing the program, but said, “I don’t think it’s proper or good faith to take away, with the snap of the finger, what was negotiated years ago.”

“I believe in the protocol and process of the city’s contract negotiations. If we are going to move in a different direction regarding fringe benefits, we have to do it the proper way,” Romero said, which includes bringing city pay in line with other municipalities.

Mayor Jonathon Rothschild said, “One of the problems is these things have been done piecemeal.”

Instead of tackling one area, Rothschild said the city will examine its entire pay structure and consider possible changes next year, when negotiations on all the city’s four union contracts are slated.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. Follow on Twitter @DarrenDaRonco