I write as a private citizen and not in my role as mayor of San Luis Obispo. I am a longtime supporter of public safety, of collective bargaining and of retired county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi. However, I respectfully disagree with her regarding the upcoming San Luis Obispo city ballot measures — Measure A (pension reform) and Measure B (repeal of binding arbitration) — which will be decided by San Luis Obispo city voters by all-mail ballot Aug. 30.
Measure A gives City Council the flexibility to negotiate a second-tier pension plan for new employees. Measure B takes authority to set public safety salaries out of the hands of out-of-town arbitrators and restores it to City Council. I believe that both of these ballot measures are needed for a financially sustainable future.
When Bianchi sat on our Board of Supervisors, she, like all other California supervisors and 95.6 percent of all city councils, had full authority to negotiate employee salaries and pension costs. To achieve long-term fiscal health, the San Luis Obispo City Council needs the same ability, especially given the constraints on government budgets that have emerged since her time in office.
Measure A is needed because pension costs are out of control. Five years ago, San Luis Obispo spent
$4.9 million on pensions. Last year, it spent $7.9 million. In five years, without corrective action, the city will spend at least $10.5 million, 20 percent of our general fund.
Police officers and firefighters can retire at age 50 with pensions that equal up to 90 percent of their highest year of earnings.
Measure B is needed because San Luis Obispo is at a distinct disadvantage as part of a tiny minority of charter cities with binding arbitration. Of California’s 482 cities, 362 are general law cities and cannot have binding arbitration because the California Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional. In the remaining 120 charter cities, 99 do not have binding arbitration and 21 do.
In 2008, an out-of-town arbitrator gave city police an unbudgeted $4 million increase over four years. That’s a 30 percent pay raise when inflation was only 11 percent. Many officers got an additional 22 percent raise for years of service.
The ongoing annual cost of that award is $2.5 million, which represents more than half the city’s $4.4 million structural budget gap. Before the award, San Luis Obispo police were the highest paid in the county. Now, they’re paid more than Los Angeles police.
Due to the award, the City Council had to eliminate $1.6 million in street improvements, $600,000 in flood protection, $300,000 in parks and $500,000 in public safety, including two planned neighborhood police officers. During the current budget cycle, four more police positions will likely go unfilled.
Our city budget is a zero-sum game. Large increases in one area inevitably lead to cuts in other areas.
My support for these measures is not anti-union. I have great respect for San Luis Obispo city public safety personnel and did not “denigrate them in public.” It is unclear how having the City Council make salary and pension decisions — as do their colleagues in 95.6 percent of other California cities — causes “a morale crisis” for our officers or firefighters.
Workers most at risk from out-of-control pension costs are young union employees. They cannot get those first jobs or are being laid off across California because their senior colleagues collect salaries and pensions richer than local governments can afford. A vote for Measures A and B is a vote for keeping sufficient officers on our streets and for long-term fiscal health.