Last week, the San Luis Obispo City Council scheduled a special hearing for Tuesday to consider whether to use the June special election to repeal the city’s charter provisions on binding arbitration for police and fire unions, and/or to repeal a similar charter section that requires us to participate in the CalPERS pension program for our employees.
I did not support the original proposal by our public safety unions on the November 2000 ballot to place binding arbitration into our charter. Like many of the city’s voters, I was dismayed to see the results of the binding arbitration process in early 2008, which led to substantial pay raises for members of the Police Officers Association. I agree that the current charter language is flawed.
In 2008, I won a seat on the City Council with the slogan “Don’t repeal it, but don’t repeat it.” In the two years since I joined the council, each of our bargaining units — including the police and firefighters — have agreed to significant concessions in pay and benefits that enabled the city to save close to $1 million in just this current fiscal year. These concessions, together with a hiring “chill” and similar measures, have enabled us to balance the budget this year, while saving jobs and avoiding furloughs. In fact, according to our upcoming midyear financial review, we expect to end the fiscal year with a slight gain in revenue over expenses.
It would be easy for me to go along with the council majority, place a measure to repeal binding arbitration before the voters and to urge voters to pass it. It seems easy, but I’m reluctant to do so. The city’s fiscal problems are far too complex to be solved by simply repealing binding arbitration. There are, however, some fixes that deserve consideration. I will do my best to convince my colleagues on the council, our public employee representatives, and Tribune readers that we are better off trying to mend it, not end it.
Ending binding arbitration will do very little to help us prepare our two-year financial plan over the next six months. We need — and until last Tuesday’s council meeting, we had all agreed — to take the time to build a solid understanding of realistic budget strategies among our staff, the community and our hard-working personnel. A proposal to end binding arbitration or to radically modify pension benefits will shift our focus, creating an inflammatory debate and contributing nothing to the long-term deliberations and negotiations that are needed to address our structural deficit and generate the 2011-13 financial plan that is due in June.
That is why I will propose a “Mend It, Don’t End It” strategy for consideration by the council Tuesday. It’s a more modest proposal that permits broad consideration of a variety of “fixes” that deserve careful consideration by all parties to the debate. If necessary, we can take up full repeal of both binding arbitration and the CalPERS pension guarantee later, but we have too much work to do in the meantime.
The problems we have with binding arbitration are at least three:
It currently covers many nonsworn employees.
The process is too inflexible: It dictates an either/or choice with no possibility of “going to the middle.”
The arbitration panel has no requirement for local representation.
The problems with pension reform are even more complex, but it is very possible that modest pension adjustments can be made without repealing our CalPERS guarantee and still save us considerable money. These include “hybrid” pension plans, increased employee contributions and extended retirement ages for all or some employees.
On Tuesday evening, I would hope that we consider a variety of measures to put on the ballot.
We should enable voters to choose whether to: A) Repeal binding arbitration altogether, or B) Modify the binding arbitration process to narrow its scope, improve accountability, and enhance the flexibility of the process.
Other measures could deal with pension reform, directing the city to modify its pension program to reduce costs while maintaining a sustainable retirement program. The intent of these more modest reforms is to permit us time to implement them through collective bargaining, based on a shared understanding of our long-term fiscal situation.
Last year, the City Council managed to resolve a long-simmering dispute between the Farmers Market Association and the Downtown Association, and everyone benefitted. This year, we have a similar conflict between the proverbial immovable object and irresistible force. I have no doubt, however, that a similar effort by all parties may bring about the result we all desire: a balanced budget; a real strategy for fiscal sustainability; and public employees (including our public safety personnel) who continue to feel valued, fairly compensated, and eager to go to work for our city every day.
John Ashbaugh is vice mayor of San Luis Obispo.