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Council hopping over cop pay hike

With sales-tax promises at risk, members want power over pay

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SLO City’s Council members Christine Mulholland and Paul Brown are not natural ideological soulmates; they vote at odds with each other on most controversial topics.

Yet they’re united in outrage over a settlement that will grant SLO City’s roughly 45 police officers immediate lump-sum windfalls of about $50,000 each, along with ongoing raises to 2009 that will push the average officer’s income from the city to more than $100,000—a level Brown called “CEO pay.”

The pay hikes were granted by an arbitrator, and City Council members don’t have any further say in the matter. They’re hoping people will get mad enough about the pay to give them back the ultimate power to negotiate with police and firefighter unions.

The deal granted police officers a series of retroactive raises to the end of 2005, when their last contract expired. That money will be paid all at once. In addition, the typical officer will receive a 27 percent raise to reach a 2009 salary of $93,000. It will reach more than $107,000 with normal overtime.

The way arbitration works, the arbitrator can’t select a middle ground—he or she must side with either the city or the union. In this case Oakland-based arbitrator Matthew Goldberg sided with the union on most significant compensation issues, opting to set the pay at 85 percent of the average level police receive in a survey of cities, ranging from Santa Barbara to Monterey. He sided with the city on health insurance issues and a handful of others.

Dale Strobridge, of the San Luis Police Officers Association, called the deal fair, saying it will help retain police officers and keep the force competitive with other agencies.

But the settlement will immediately cost the city $5.8 million for the lump-sum payments ($4.4 million more than the city had set aside for that purpose), and it will cost $2.7 million per year after that, about $900,000 more than the city was prepared for.

Mulholland said the settlement will decimate the city’s budget and eat up about half of the funds gathered through a recent sales-tax increase, Measure Y, which voters were told would go to specific purposes such as street improvements and acquiring open spaces.

Instead, she said, most of those goals will be again on hold. “We’re going to be cutting right now,” she said.

Indeed, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Ken Hampian said, in a press release, that the city next month will consider measures ranging from hiring and travel “chills” to budget reductions and the use of reserves.

The council didn’t have final say in the matter because city voters passed a ballot measure in 2000 that allowed police and fire fighters to take their concerns to binding arbitration. This is the first time it has been invoked.

Although the 2000 measure had opponents—the SLO Chamber, for example and the entire council—it was passed based on the argument that it provided fairness to police and fire fighters, because they are legally prohibited from striking.

Mulholland, for one, would like to see that measure turned back, through another citizen initiative. Her argument?

“We don’t have trouble recruiting police officers!” she said emphatically in a recent interview.

The arbitrator found the same thing, noting in his report “While recruitment does not appear to be a problem now, at least for sworn officers, it may well become one in the future.”

Leaders of the town of Vallejo, the California city that sought bankruptcy protection in May, cited a similar initiative there as one of the reasons for its budget problems. Voters approved binding arbitration there after a 1970s police strike. City leaders there are pushing a measure to get rid of binding arbitration.

Brown said the council could push to put the measure on the ballot, but it wouldn’t be appropriate; he said it would be better if citizens led the plan.

“The public voted for it; the public needs to take it away if they don’t like it.”

Brown said he supported Measure Y, over the objections of fellow fiscal conservatives, because he felt it would accomplish major city goals.

“I’m all about taking care of the guys,” said Brown, a former military police officer. “I get it. I want to make sure we have highly motivated people doing that job. But the process sucks. And it is not in the best interest of the city to make that huge leap all at once.”

City Council Member Andrew Carter said in an e-mail that he also supports the repeal.

He noted that the police deal could potentially cost the city millions more than estimated, because supervisors will have to receive raises, too. He’s also concerned that the deal will lead firefighters to pursue binding arbitration in the future.

Strobridge said he’s not surprised council members plan to push to overturn the measure but he said he’s particularly disappointed in Brown’s words since Brown had expressed support for binding arbitration in past elections when the union backed him.

He added that if there’s a push for a repeal, the police will be ready to argue their side.


Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com

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