San Luis Obispo voters are being inundated by the pros and cons of two ballot measures focused on employee benefits and compensation.
The special election campaign — consisting of debates, print and broadcast advertisements, rallies and phone calls — has been under way for the past month, urging voters to pick a side in the contentious fight.
Measure A asks voters to amend the city charter to eliminate a requirement that the City Council hold an election to obtain voter approval to terminate its contract with CalPERS or negotiate another contract to reduce employee benefits. CalPERS is the retirement system used by San Luis Obispo.
Measure B asks voters to repeal binding arbitration — a means of neutral mediation available to public safety unions — and return contract discussions of such issues as wages, hours or terms and conditions of employment to the collective bargaining process used by other employees.
Here’s an analysis of some of the statements being made by each side and the facts behind the claims:
In Support of Measures A and B: As stated by San Luis Obispo Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility in paid political advertisements.
Claim: Vote “yes” on Measure A, support pension reform.
Fact: The measure does not change the current pension offerings of the city. Instead, it would do away with an existing requirement that San Luis Obispo voters must approve any proposed reduction to employee retirement benefits for future employees.
Claim: The initial binding arbitration decision awarded massive pay increases of greater than 30 percent to police.
Fact: The raises an arbiter awarded to police employees in 2008 gave officers a 30 percent raise when compounded over the period of 2006-09. Dispatchers were given a 37 percent raise for that same period of 2006-09, including compounding.
Claim: San Luis Obispo police officers can retire at age 50 and receive pensions worth more than $93,000 per year.
Fact: A number of factors must align for an officer to achieve such a pension payment. First, the officer would have had to work for 30 or more years. The officer would also have had to receive other “special compensation” such as a uniform allowance, bilingual pay, or one of two educational incentives — 2.6 percent for an associate’s degree and 5.26 percent for a bachelor’s degree. Special compensation also includes cashing in a percentage of holiday hours. CalPERS defines the final compensation used to calculate a police officer’s pension as base pay and special compensation.
Claim: In 2008, an out-of-town arbitrator awarded pay increases of 30 percent to 57 percent to San Luis Obispo police.
Fact: To have received a 57 percent raise over the four years, a police officer would also have had to receive four step increases during that same time. According to city records, no sworn officer received four step increases in that period.
In Support of Measures A and B: As stated on the website www.citizensforslo.org.
Claim: Thanks to binding arbitration, police officers and firefighters can get higher pay and benefits without the personal financial risk of a strike.
Fact: Under binding arbitration, any pay and benefit increases are subject to the ruling of the arbitrator and are not automatic. State law prohibits police and firefighters from striking, so binding arbitration has no effect on this aspect of employment.
Against Measures A and B: The San Luis Obispo City Police and Fire Association PAC, as drawn from paid political advertisements.
Claim: When firefighters negotiate for enhanced retirement benefits, other potential benefits or salary enhancements are given up. This is the nature of collective bargaining. The cost to a city is no higher than if a comparable salary increase were negotiated in place of retirement benefits. Fact: Because labor negotiations are behind closed doors, it is unknown if unions took less pay in exchange for retirement benefits. But claims about costs are clear-cut. Unlike salary increases, retirement costs are variable. The existing formula for safety employee pensions was implemented in December 2005 for fire employees and February 2003 for police employees. At that time, the retirement program had high investment returns, and CalPERS advised cities that the new formula would not increase employer contributions. However, retirement costs have escalated because of investment losses and actuarial changes.
Against Measures A and B: From the website Slotruth.org.
Claim: Measures A and B have no impact on the budget other than the money it is costing the city to conduct a special election. Measures A and B are power grabs that seek to unfairly put the balance of power in the hands of the City Council and away from the citizens.
Fact: Measure A does seek to make the City Council the final authority over amending or negotiating employee pensions. Currently, voters have the final say. However, there is no existing citizen involvement in the binding arbitration process addressed by Measure B. That process includes a three-person panel of arbitrators selected by the two parties.
Claim: Binding arbitration is needed because San Luis Obispo public safety professionals cannot, and would not, strike like others in the workforce when working conditions become unfair. Without binding arbitration, public safety workers have no real voice at the bargaining table.
Fact: The state’s Public Employment Relations Board ensures that collective bargaining statutes pertaining to employees of public agencies are followed. Public safety unions will still have collective bargaining rights if binding arbitration is repealed. If agreement is not reached between an employee organization and the city, a mutually-agreed-to mediator can be selected. If an impasse is reached, the city may then implement its last, best and final offer. However, employees cannot be bound to that finding by contract, and the city is still obligated to meet with the employee groups each year to negotiate terms of employment.
Claim: When both sides do not have binding arbitration forcing them to bargain in good faith, it will leave the safety of not only the citizens but also that of the police and firefighters in jeopardy.
Fact: Public safety personnel are obligated by law to protect the citizens they serve. Staffing levels remained fairly consistent prior to binding arbitration’s implementation. In 1999, there were 13 firefighters, 15 engineers and 12 captains on staff. Today, there are 12 firefighters, 15 engineers and 12 captains. However, the number of authorized paramedics has increased from 15 in 1999 to 24 today.
Claim: Binding arbitration helps ensure good-faith bargaining. Without it, politicians can cut public safety personnel and benefits at will to achieve political leverage. One dangerous result is that lower staffing means longer response times and fewer resources in emergencies, and thus, more danger to the public and public safety professionals alike.
Fact: The average response time over a six-month period for fire response to emergency medical calls actually increased to 3 minutes and 37 seconds in 2010 from 3 minutes and 17 seconds in 2000, when binding arbitration was first introduced.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.