There is growing support on the Sacramento City Council for a ballot measure that could grant the council more power over decisions about pay, benefits and working conditions for public safety personnel, including police officers.
Consultants earlier this year recommended the city repeal binding arbitration protections for public safety unions to save money as the city approaches potential budget deficits in the coming years with soaring pension payments. The bleak financial situation is now further exacerbated by the more than $90 million in projected tax revenue lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a popular idea among activists in Sacramento’s Black community, amid a powerful nationwide movement to reduce police funding and reallocate it to programs for youth and to uplift disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Flojaune Cofer, an activist who blasted the council’s police reform measures it adopted recently as “an underfunded and poorly considered set of 1998 reforms,” said the council should have voted to place a binding arbitration measure on the ballot for Nov. 3.
“I think that would’ve been a great item to have on the agenda,” said Cofer, chair of the Measure U Citizens Advisory Committee. “If we are gonna have a conversation about the policing, it needs to start with their budget.”
The council has until Aug. 7 to place a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot, according to the city clerk’s office.
The idea would be to amend the city charter to remove binding arbitration for the city’s police and fire unions. Currently, when those unions have a dispute with pay, benefits and working conditions that cannot be resolved in bargaining, it goes to an Arbitration Board, whose decision is binding. The board is neutral, but the city often ends up conceding to the union shortly before arbitration is set to begin, according to a March 2020 report from consulting firm Management Partners.
“The reality of binding arbitration is that the employer, fearful of the dynamics of the arbitration process, will often concede and enter into agreements that are more costly and result in fewer dollars available to provide other services,” the report said.
The head of the Sacramento Police Officers Association said binding arbitration provides an important “level playing field” in bargaining, especially because officers cannot strike.
“It is the citizens of the City of Sacramento that have benefited the most from the labor peace that arbitration has brought our community,” SPOA President Officer Timothy Davis said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee. “The process of arbitration has only been rarely used to resolve police contracts, but its existence has helped both sides to be reasonable in their requests, resulting in negotiated, rather than arbitrated contracts.”
Chris Andrew, president of Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522, disagreed with the consultants that binding arbitration gives the union an advantage.
“The process forces both the City and Labor to work towards a fair contract that benefits both sides in order to avoid the expense, delays and especially the unknowns of the arbitration decision,” Andrew said in a statement to The Bee.
‘Safeguarding the budget’
At least four council members want to explore placing a measure on a future ballot.
“They take almost 80 percent of our budget,” Councilman Jeff Harris said of police and fire. “It’s the best thing I can do in terms of safeguarding the budget of the city and freeing up money to put it in other places that would meet the needs better.”
Getting the measure on the ballot by Aug. 7 would be a tight turnaround because the council is on summer break until July 21, but Harris is not ruling it out, he said.
“I’m actively working on it,” Harris said.
Councilman Steve Hansen agreed, calling it “a conversation we have to have.”
Councilman Allen Warren indicated he would be interested in seeing if it can be done by Aug. 7.
“I think time is of the essence,” Warren said. “We have to be responsive in looking at ways to be a more efficient city.”
Councilman Jay Schenirer, who has been working to find more money in the budget for youth programs for years, also said he thinks the idea is worth a conversation.
“I think at this point, everything should be on the table,” Schenirer said.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg declined comment for this story.
Where else has it been done?
Binding arbitration is used in a “relatively small” number of charter cities in the state, the report said. It names San Jose, Stockton, Vallejo, San Luis Obispo and Palo Alto as charter cities that have successfully repealed binding arbitration.
Many California cities added binding arbitration for police, fire or both, into their city charters in the 1990s when revenues were up. Sacramento passed its version in 1996. In the years following the Great Recession, several cities have voted to repeal it.
In 2010, Vallejo residents voted to remove binding arbitration for all employees, San Jose voters removed it for police and Stockton voters removed it for firefighters.
In San Luis Obispo, it was a long process. Voters in 2011 approved to remove binding arbitration for the police union, but the city did not meet and consult with the police union ahead of time, so a judge ruled the city had to restore it. In 2016, it was removed from the charter for good. Palo Alto made the same error in 2011, a judge ruled in 2016. It’s also now removed, the consultant report said.
The 188-page Management Partners report, for which the council paid $271,575, was released in March, as the pandemic hit. The council has not yet adopted any of its 39 recommendations.
Another demand from activists
Under the SPOA’s current contract, which expires in September 2021, officers are set to receive 3.5 percent raises each December.
For the current fiscal year, which started July 1, that amounts to a total of about $3.5 million, city spokesman Tim Swanson said.
It’s a piece of the police department’s all-time-high $157.5 million budget for this fiscal year. City officials have described the budget as a “status quo” pandemic budget, and the police department’s budget rose just $3 million from the prior year.
Police budgets had increased significantly in recent years; the department’s budget in 2017-18 was $131.6 million.
Cofer and other activists say the police need to forego those raises for the good of the city. They’re asking the council to ask the city to bring the SPOA back to the table.
“It is terrifying to me that there is a state worker out there who is an essential employee who puts their life on the line and yet Terrence (Mercadal) and Jared (Robinet), the officers who killed Stephon Clark, got 3.5 percent raises in December and get another one next December,” Cofer said.
The raises are especially a tough sell in Sacramento, home to many state workers, said Councilwoman-Elect Katie Valenzuela.
“Continuing to get salary increases in a time of severe economic issues for the city? It feels a little tone deaf,” said Valenzuela, who will take over the seat representing midtown, downtown and Land Park in December.
When Cofer asked Steinberg during a Measure U Committee meeting to go back to the table, he said: “I would not hold out hope for that prospect.” He also mentioned binding arbitration.
But could the council do it if it wanted to?
“Like any organization, the City can attempt to reopen negotiations on a settled contract if changes are deemed to be appropriate and necessary,” Swanson said in a statement. “Any renegotiation would reflect the intent and direction of the City Council.”
It does not appear the council is going to give that direction, at least not without a budget deficit. If the city finds itself in a deficit in August or September when it gets new data on just how bad the pandemic has affected its bottom line, two councilmen said they might be open to the idea.
“I think if we’re doing that, we should open all contracts for review, but right now we’re waiting to see how revenues come in,” Hansen said.
Harris said the council should “perhaps talk about it,” but said the city has a hard time keeping officers employed because they can go to suburbs where they are paid more money and often face less danger. Rescinding raises would make that even harder, he said.
“They were running for the exits to Roseville and Elk Grove. We knew we had to do something,” Harris said of the raises in the latest contract.
SPOA’s Davis said Sacramento officers are still compensated at rates below market.
“It is essential that Sacramento attract diversity and that we recruit and hire the best candidates. In order to recruit and retain diversified, highly educated, well trained, quality police officers, Sacramento must offer competitive wages and benefits,” Davis said.
From The Sacramento Bee