On Tuesday at 7 p.m., the San Luis Obispo City Council will meet to decide whether to put the repeal or amendment of binding arbitration on a future city ballot. If you are interested in this issue, I urge you to attend the meeting and provide your input. Should council put the issue on the ballot, a citywide vote could take place as early as June.
As most people know, I have long been an opponent of binding arbitration. I have long advocated that City Council should give city voters the opportunity to repeal or amend it. In my re-election campaign last fall, I made that position clear and received the most votes of any council or mayoral candidate running.
Why do I oppose binding arbitration? It’s not because I am anti-union. I have been a member of two different unions. My mother was a member of a union. I oppose binding arbitration because of the financial costs it has imposed on the city and because it is antidemocratic.
In 2007/08, our police officers used binding arbitration. They turned down a four-year cost-of-living increase 1.9 times the inflation rate. Through arbitration, they received an increase 2.8 times the inflation rate. The arbitration award they received cost the city an extra $4 million in fiscal year 2008/09. That’s for 70 employees. On an ongoing basis, the award continues to cost the city $2.5 million every year.
Before binding arbitration, our police were being paid more than any other police department on the Central Coast. After binding arbitration, they were being paid more than the Los Angeles Police Department.
When the binding arbitration award came through, Council was forced to make budget cuts in other areas. There is no magic purse. An extra dollar spent for one thing means a dollar less for other things. Council made capital improvement and program cuts. One of the program cuts we had to make was to not hire the additional police officers for neighborhood patrols promised in the Measure Y campaign.
Binding arbitration sounds good in theory. In practice, it’s terrible. As long as the city makes a reasonable offer, the union has nothing to lose. The arbiter will always “split the baby” and give the union more. Our final cost-of-living offer was not only reasonable, it was generous.
So how is binding arbitration undemocratic? It’s undemocratic because it invests final decision making in an arbiter who does not live here, has no ties to the community, and is accountable to no one. It takes authority away from your elected City Council. You can always toss us from office if you don’t like the decisions we make, but the arbiter is judge and jury. Ultimately, it means you, the taxpayer, have no control.
I believe voters want the council to get control of the city budget. With personnel costs representing 80 percent of operating expenses, the only way to do so is to get control of personnel line items. Binding arbitration prevents us from doing that.
City revenues have been down for two years. Pension costs have been exploding for 10 and are expected to rise for at least five more. Unless we get control of personnel costs, we must cut services, cut employees, cut maintenance, cut capital improvements, cut the quality of life in San Luis Obispo.
Ultimately the decision is yours. Should we keep binding arbitration, repeal it, or amend it?
Andrew Carter is a San Luis Obispo city councilman.