Giving voters the power to strip the city’s public safety unions of their voter-approved binding arbitration is emerging as a topic of discussion for the San Luis Obispo City Council as budget worries continue to plague the city.
It now appears there is consensus among City Council members that putting binding arbitration back on the ballot could help the city save money.
Council members Andrew Carter, Dan Carpenter and Kathy Smith voted in favor of discussing possible ways to modify or eliminate binding arbitration for police and firefighters at a recent daylong goal-setting session. Until now, Carter was the only council member to state publicly that he was willing to lead a move to repeal it.
Binding arbitration refers to a mandate in the city charter that local voters approved in 2000, which entitles the unions for public safety employees to turn to a third-party arbiter if labor negotiations reach an impasse. The charter requires the city to abide by that referee’s decision.
There are two ways binding arbitration can be put back on the ballot: through a request by a council majority or a citizen initiative. A majority of voters would have to approve it, City Manager Katie Lichtig said.
In June 2008, an arbiter gave sworn police officers a 30 percent raise and increased dispatchers’ and other nonsworn police staff’s pay by 37 percent over a four-year contract.
Since that ruling, city leaders have complained that the mandate has stripped them of their budget-making authority and threatened financial ruin for the city.
Unions say arbitration is fair because they can’t go on strike.
Councilwoman Kathy Smith brought binding arbitration to the nearly two dozen-item list of reduction ideas up for discussion among the council.
“There would have to be a strong community component that would have to want this to pass for it to happen,” Smith said. “We are only three votes.”
“But all three of us are willing to go on the record and say that we support discussing putting it on the ballot again,” Smith said. “It won’t necessarily make us the most popular with the police and fire unions. I believe that the city has to have control over its finances, and the unions have to come together with us on that — we are all in this together.”
Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said in prior discussions with Smith and Carpenter that the association would look to the public to bring an initiative forward.
“It is our hope that if there was a process to put binding arbitration back on the ballot that it would come from the public and not the City Council,” Baskin said.
Carpenter said he has not yet decided if the council should put binding arbitration back on the ballot but that he is interested in discussing it further.
“It is too soon to have an opinion either way,” he said.
The City Council also hashed out its future goals for the 2011-13 budget — cognizant of a predicted shortfall of $3 million in the city’s roughly $54 million annual general fund for the fiscal year 2011-12. That shortfall is anticipated to grow to $3.4 million in 2013-14 and is projected to be $2.7 million annually for each of the five years after that.
The council’s major goals will include many similar to past years: economic development, maintaining the city’s essential services and traffic congestion relief. One new goal that rose to a top priority is neighborhood wellness with an emphasis on proactive code enforcement.
City staff will return with detailed reports on how to implement the goals for the council’s consideration in April.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.