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Bad budget, bad blood

Public safety unions balk at pay cuts

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The county’s public safety employees—sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, and the like—are seemingly immune from layoffs, which might be why none of their local unions agreed to voluntarily cut their pay and benefits when asked by administrators. But when faced with layoffs, the county’s janitors and maintenance workers were more willing to take a hit in an effort to save jobs.

Some SLO County government employees will lose their jobs because of the county’s budget deficit, which is expected to worsen. Much of the deficit has been attributed to steady increases in county employees salaries and benefits. Ironically, higher pay for some people could mean pink slips for others. Some employees are taking cuts in hopes they’ll prevent layoffs. Others aren’t. And the people who took voluntary cuts aren’t sitting quietly.

Kimm Daniels voiced her outrage to SLO County supervisors on March 31: “We’re really sick of the public safety folks believing that they are the rich Beverly Hills cousins and they are exempt from the cuts.”

Daniels is general manager of the SLO County Employees’ Association, the largest public employee union in the county. The union is also the only public labor group that has so far volunteered cuts to save jobs, or at least delay layoffs.

Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox said SLOCEA members’ cuts may or may not save jobs depending on the final budget. One certainty, she said, is layoffs scheduled for June were delayed until January 2010, which could give people more time to find new work.

The trades, crafts, and services sector of SLOCEA consists mostly of janitors and maintenance workers and was the first group to voluntarily renegotiate its contract, but they didn’t have to.

“There were a number of employees within their ranks that [recognized] there is a very real possibility that they’ll be laid off, so they said, ‘Let’s take a look at this,’” Daniels said.

Not so for employees in the public safety sector. Such employees are not without financial issues, but layoffs are not a prospect.

“The Board of Supervisors has taken a position that public safety would be less impacted by current budget cuts,” Deputy Sheriffs’ Association union representative Tony Perry said, “so the supervisors in a letter had requested that the DSA consider making concessions in regards to the current status of the budget.”

In fact, every union was asked to come back to the table, but only a few did.

“‘The response overall was generally, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’” County Administrative Officer David Edge said.

Public safety employees have the luxury of being effectively indispensable. No one wants want to reduce the number of people arresting and prosecuting criminals.

“There’s a political perception,” Edge said. “I think there’s no legal immunity, it’s a matter of the democratic process. … They hear from their constituents that public safety is the constituents’ highest priority generally, and so they reflect that in their decision making.”

Perry admitted that DSA employees are more or less protected from layoffs, but, he said, they’re not totally immune from cuts.

“Contrary to the position that there’s no sacrifices being made by our people, that’s contrary to what’s actually occurring,” he said. “Sacrifices are being made.”

Those sacrifices include leaving vacant positions empty and less overtime for deputies. He said any personnel cuts would be too much for the department to handle. Still, no one is losing a job.

But everyone is hurting, Daniels said. Previous budget cuts have reduced staffing levels to the point where the only cuts left, particularly for non-public-safety jobs, are layoffs.

“You can only do so much before you crumble,” she said. “You can only carry so much.”

About 44 people are in danger of losing their jobs when a final budget is approved in June. In total, 150 positions have been pegged for elimination, about 100 of which are currently vacant. It’s all in hope of shrinking a $30 million budget deficit.

The trades and crafts members, under the auspices of SLOCEA, were the first and only members to voluntarily renegotiate mid-contract. Last week during regular labor negotiations, the remaining 1,500 SLOCEA members tentatively agreed to delay pay raises for a year and make tweaks to their benefits packages that Daniels estimated would save $900,000.

The county Probation Peace Officers Association met with county officials but declined to make any concessions, Wilcox said. The county District Attorney Investigators Association declined to meet before its regular negotiations, which will begin in about two weeks. Representatives from both unions couldn’t be reached for comment before press time.

It’s almost budget time, and there will be cuts. County supervisors will soon decide what and who to cut. For now, however, public safety is safe.

Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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