RIVERSIDE, CA – San Bernardino officials’ budget-balancing efforts won two victories in U.S. Bankruptcy Court here Thursday at the expense of the firefighters union.
In a tentative ruling, Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury agreed to reject the current bargaining agreement between firefighters and the city, allowing the city to impose a new contract of its choosing.
The city suggested in papers to the court that part of the reason to reject the existing contract was so it could replace a constant staffing model with minimum staffing — in essence, giving management the option of leaving some firefighter positions unfilled for a shift if a firefighter doesn’t come to work, reducing the more than $4 million in overtime the city pays firefighters most years. Another expected reason was continuing to make firefighters pay the retirement contributions the city handled until January 2013, reducing the employees’ take-home pay by nearly 14 percent.
But City Manager Allen Parker said after the court hearing that there weren’t plans to impose a new contract immediately after rejecting the current one, theoretically leaving a void.
“It kind of leaves us in limbo,” Parker said. “That can be your headline: City in limbo.”
Jury made clear that she wasn’t agreeing to the specifics of any potential imposition. And she said that during bankruptcy the city can’t break “substantive law,” including the city charter provision that prevents cutting public safety salaries (but which is on November’s ballot for possible repeal).
Previous cases don’t establish how long the imposed contract can be used, Jury said.
“I said it’s interim, but I don’t how long interim is,” she said. “I think until a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated or the plan (to exit bankruptcy) is approved.”
In a separate ruling Thursday, Jury rejected the firefighter union’s motion for relief from the stay preventing anyone from suing the city while it’s in bankruptcy. Firefighters’ attorneys want to argue in state court that the city hadn’t followed state law in its negotiations. Still undecided are separate motions for relief from the stay from the police and fire unions after contracts were imposed on those unions in January 2013.
The city’s attorneys will submit proposed wording of the order today, giving firefighters’ union attorneys until Wednesday to object or file an alternative proposal before a hearing Sept. 19 to finalize the order.
But after Jury spent nearly an hour explaining her decision, the reasoning for it and related issues, firefighters’ attorney Brian Goodrich submitted to the decision while reserving the right to appeal it.
The firefighters’ objection consisted mainly of arguments against the admissability of evidence the city submitted, which Jury said were mostly not legitimate. They will have the chance to cross-examine the city’s financial consultant, Michael Busch of Urban Futures, who produced most of the declarations the city used to establish that its current contract is a “burden.”
Also Thursday, the city’s bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman, said the city had rescinded two firefighter layoff notices approved as part of the budget but objected to by the firefighters’ union. Four demotions in the Fire Department are working their way through the city’s appeals process.