San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association president's remarks draw fire

A recent claim by the union president of San Luis Obispo’s Fire Department that “people will die” if voters in August revoke a provision that gives police and firefighter unions special leverage in contract talks left some City Council members reeling.

Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, recently said during a radio interview that he fears the loss of binding arbitration could lead to layoffs of firefighters.

The binding arbitration provision in the city’s charter lets police and fire unions call for a third-party arbiter to choose either the city or union contract proposal if both sides can’t agree after negotiations. The city is required to comply with the arbiter’s decision.

He went on to note that if the city were to cut jobs from the Fire Department in the future, in theory, response times would grow and the “risk of people dying” would increase.

That brought a strong response from City Councilman Andrew Carter.

“It seems to me that because they can’t refute the facts, all they have to go against are emotion,” Carter said.

“And when he says on Congalton that ‘people will die,’ that takes it beyond emotion and going into fear,” Carter added, referring to David Congalton’s afternoon radio talk show on KVEC-AM, which had Baskin as a guest Friday.

Carter argues that the potential of a third-party arbiter deciding for high salary increases for safety personnel is what would put staffing at risk, not the repeal of binding arbitration. If the city had to devote money to pay for large raises, there would be less funds for staffing overall.

The council recently eliminated four jobs from the Police Department. The Fire Department also cut an administrative assistant and a fourth of the hours for its fire inspector during the reductions leading up to the adoption of the city’s two-year budget in June.

Mayor Jan Marx said that more staffing cuts from the Police and Fire departments are not being discussed.

“Police and fire employees are very high on the list of priorities for the residents and certainly for the City Council,” Marx said. “We need to be properly staffed to handle the unforeseen and unpredictable, but that doesn’t mean that we have to pay close to the highest rates in the whole state. We are just a small city.”

Baskin claims that staffing cuts and fire station closures have happened in other cities where voters repealed binding arbitration. But he has not explained how the closures and cuts would have been a direct result of binding arbitration being revoked, or whether other financial issues were involved.

Carter maintains the City Council would not do anything to jeopardize the safety of the community and said that minimum staffing levels are dictated for both the Police and Fire departments to ensure that adequate personnel are available.

Special election

San Luis Obispo voters will decide in a special Aug. 30 mail-only election if two significant changes will be made to the city’s charter related to pay and compensation for its employees.

Measure A seeks to amend a charter section that requires voter approval to make changes to the city’s retirement offerings. That is intended to lead to discussion about creating a two-tier pension plan, where new workers would likely get reduced benefits, but existing employees keep their current plans.

Measure B would eliminate a provision, called binding arbitration, that lets police and fire unions call for a third-party arbiter to choose either the city or union contract proposal if both sides can’t agree after negotiations.