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Blue-collar SLO workers question raises for managers

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SLO City workers, clad in orange work shirts bearing the city logo on their shoulders, filed into City Hall the rainy night of Jan. 22 to look on as City Council members approved raises to dozens of high-ranking managers, engineers, and utilities workers--seemingly everybody but them.

Forming a solid blue-collar block close to the entrance, the group shifted in their seats and exchanged anxious looks for 2 1/2 hours while council members picked apart language for public land easements and new subdivisions.

When it came time to discuss proposed raises, set to be phased in over two budget cycles at an estimated cost to the city's general fund and water and sewer funds of about $800,000 in 2008-09, the council seemed content with the report as presented by Human Resources Director Monica Irons, and asked no questions of staff.

The 5-0 vote granted raises for top managers of between 4 percent and 17 percent. Most of the covered employees will see immediate raises of 5 percent under the switch, but Police Chief Deb Linden will receive 8 percent immediately and another 9 percent later because the survey found her position was especially underpaid. The remainder of the boost will come in the next cycle, and both of those raises are in addition to those the employees may have already been eligible for.

Impetus for the pay hikes grew out of a compensation survey, begun after the city lost some key employees to Paso Robles and other cities. Based on the survey, the city opted for "surgical" raises for certain categories of workers, rather than an across-the-board boost.

After the presentation, Ed Humphry, a crew leader for city street maintenance, expressed his disappointment in the survey's results. Still wearing his bright orange crew shirt and blue workpants, and barely containing a quiver in his voice, he spoke about frustrations with the assessment. Despite a sense of being overlooked, he said that his crew of 15 would continue to do their best.

"But it's with a heavy heart," he said. "Knowing that we were invisible when the study was conducted."

The following two speakers seemed more concerned with where the money was coming from. Given the state budget crisis and declining city revenues, they questioned if the money is coming from the recent voter-approved sales-tax increase, Measure Y.

"I'm just not sure where all the money is coming from," one speaker said. "Given that Measure Y was passed to help the community in a tight fiscal situation, I'm not sure what's changed since then, except the tax from Measure Y.

"It's a trust issue," he went on. "You either have the money, or you don't."

Both Mayor Dave Romero and Councilman Paul Brown addressed the use of Measure Y funds for the raises. Neither directly said that the money is coming from the funds, but each defended the idea in concept. Romero said that he saw no problem with the way the city was using Measure Y funds.

"We did not say we wouldn't use it to retain staff," Romero said, "and that is part of providing good services to the community."

City Administrative Officer Ken Hampian, in an interview, said that the process took almost two years and included work from an outside analyst.

Hampian is one of those who will get raises, but he stressed that the process was done in an open manner: "There was a great deal of accountability built into the process."

At around 10:30, the council finally delivered a unanimous vote in favor of the raises for the highest-level city employees.

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