Labor pains

Contract negotiations not close to solving the budget deficit

Two years ago, the Chico City Council adopted a new policy requiring greater transparency when it comes to labor negotiations. This new procedure went into action during the panel’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (Oct. 5) with a report on the progress between the city and its employee bargaining groups.

The update was scheduled for late in the meeting. However, it was clear from the turnout that several of the unions and the city are nowhere near an agreement.

City employees, who in many cases brought friends and family members, crowded into the council chambers. The most conspicuous among them were nine members of the Chico Police Officers Association wearing red numbered jerseys that CPOA union representative Steve Allen later said represented the number of officers the city could lose if it imposes layoffs.

The issue was the elephant in the room during several hours related to other city matters, and the union members’ presence wasn’t the only indication of the frustration over the contracts.

Police Chief Mike Maloney appeared agitated as he presented an annual report on the city’s controversial Disorderly Events Ordinance. Maloney noted that the ordinance was used “in a very reasonable manner” only three times during the year. After a short presentation, he essentially suggested that the report is a waste of his department’s time.

“I frankly think there are other things we should be talking about related to public safety,” he said.

Maloney repeated that mantra until Councilman Larry Wahl humored him, asking him to expound on what those other things might be. Maloney then talked about the department’s decrease in per-capita staffing over the past decade, during a time of increased calls for service, as well as the future loss of grant funding that currently pays for four officers. Discussions on such issues, he said, have been “conspicuously absent” from city meetings. Instead, topics such as disc golf, climate change and the arts have taken center stage, he asserted.

All of the council members agreed that more conversations about public safety should be a priority. Only Councilman Scott Gruendl pointed out that chief has always been welcome to come to the council to bring up such issues. “It’s a two-way street,” he offered.

(Eventually, all seven council members voted in favor of a broadened discussion of police matters and to drop the annual report on the ordinance.)

Maloney’s concerns were echoed later in the meeting by Chico police officer Will Clark, who sported one of those red jerseys and addressed the council about labor negotiations. The Police Department is operating with 97 officers when it should have 124 officers, he said. Clark, who according to public records earned about $73,000 last year, said he wants the city to look “outside of the box” at alternatives.

Regardless of the negotiations, Clark pledged that Chico police will continue providing the best services to the community. He added, however, that the thought of losing nine officers is on their minds. “That’s the last thing they need to be thinking about when they are on the street serving citizens,” he said.

City Manager Dave Burkland has proposed that each of the eight bargaining units agree to a 5 percent reduction in salary and to pay a greater portion of their health-insurance premium (40 percent rather than the current 25 percent). The city is facing a General Fund deficit of more than $6 million over the next two years and has already imposed other cost-saving measures, including early retirements and cuts to overtime. The proposed employee concessions would save the city more than $2 million and help avoid layoffs.

However, so far only three unions (management, confidential and public-safety management) have agreed to the city’s proposal. In addition to the police union, the other holdouts include the Chico Public Safety Association, the two branches of the Service Employees International Union, and the International Association of Firefighters (the only union with a contract that doesn’t expire at the end of December).

Allen, the CPOA’s representative, held firm on the union’s position.

“We’re not interested in agreeing to a pay cut or benefit cut,” he said.

Ann Mooney, representing the Service Employees International Union, told the panel that the health-care costs are the worst of the proposed concessions. She said the union’s members are among the lowest-paid city workers—the employees who can least absorb such income losses. The city, she added, has not budged in the slightest.

“This isn’t bargaining, this is strong-arming,” she said.

Responding, Councilwoman Mary Flynn reminded the unions that their members voted in July against a more affordable health-care option. That decision has increased the city’s costs by more than $400,000 a year.

Councilman Jim Walker noted that Chico is not unique in dealing with budget shortfalls. Similar labor negotiations are happening in municipalities throughout the state. The city’s financial woes, he said, are due to declines in sales-tax revenues. He urged the groups to do their part to balance the budget and warned them that layoffs will be unavoidable without the concessions.

“Thinking we can do it without making some painful decisions is not realistic,” he said.