SLO voters to decide on union pay issues in August

SLO council votes 4-1 to hold election in attempt to repeal binding arbitration

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMay 18, 2011 

San Luis Obispo voters will decide in August whether two significant changes will be made to the city’s charter related to pay and compensation for its employees.

The City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night, with Councilman John Ashbaugh casting the lone dissenting vote, to set the mail-only ballot for Aug. 30. The decision comes after months of heated debate between the city and its public safety unions.

The measures were affirmed by the council Tuesday. One seeks to repeal a provision that lets police and fire unions call for a third-party arbitrator to decide on their contracts if the unions and city can’t agree after negotiations. The other would amend a charter section that requires voter approval to make changes to the city’s retirement offerings — paving the way for future discussion about creating a two-tier pension plan.

The special election will cost the city up to $110,000. The City Council agreed Tuesday to contract with the county to conduct the election.

In February, council members Andrew Carter, Dan Carpenter and Kathy Smith united in support of bringing the two issues forward.

Carter, who pledged during his re-election campaign to do just that, has argued that repealing binding arbitration is necessary to allow city leaders to make the fiscal decisions needed because of the city’s dire budget situation.

City leaders are expected to release a draft of a two-year budget Friday that will eliminate more than $4 million from the city’s general fund.

The city faces a $4.4 million shortfall in its $54 million annual general fund for the fiscal year 2011-12, which begins July 1.

That shortfall will grow to $5 million in 2013-14 and is projected to be $4.7 million annually for each of the next five years.

The proposed budget will eliminate more than a dozen jobs, cut back services and rely on employees for $2.1 million in savings by asking employee groups for lower salary and compensation.

Under binding arbitration, approved by voters in 2000, if the city and public safety unions cannot agree on a contract, the matter automatically goes to an arbiter for a decision.

In June 2008, an arbiter gave sworn police officers a 30 percent raise and increased dispatchers’ and other non-sworn police staff’s pay by 37 percent over a four-year contract.

Since that ruling, some local civic and business leaders have complained that the mandate has stripped the council of its budget authority and threatened financial ruin for the city.

Unions say that arbitration is fair because they can not go on strike.

The unions have argued that the City Council is rushing to put the issues forward to voters without adhering to what they maintain is a required discussion first.

The San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association filed a lawsuit against the city May 3 but put it on hold Monday after San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall’s ruling that the union did not have the grounds to prevent the City Council from putting the two ballot measures before voters.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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