A spokesman for the firefighter’s union remains dismayed at the terms of a two-year contract ratified Tuesday by the City Council, which has yet to come to terms with the police employees’ union.
“There was nothing harmonious about this,” John Latta, spokesman for Laguna Beach firefighters and the Orange County Firefighters Association Local 3631, said Wednesday. “They made it perfectly clear from the first meeting that there was one thing on the table, one thing only, and that was take-aways and that the City Council was angry at us and felt we were the cause of their fiscal problems.”
Latta said contentions began when the City Council expressed displeasure about a 5-percent pay raise firefighters received last year. “The City Council was blaming us for not giving back our cost of living adjustment last year, which was pretty baffling, quite frankly, because they never asked for it,” Latta said. “A contract is a contract.”
New contract terms for city firefighters include no pay raises and, for the first time, require firefighters to contribute to their own retirement funds. The council’s approval of the agreement took all of a few minutes with no arguments from either side. “You should all know we’ve been working on this in closed session; this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this,” explained Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson.
Latta said he talked with then-City Manager Ken Frank last year to discuss the annual cost of living increase before it became due. “He said, ‘No,’ he wasn’t interested in doing that,” Latta said, adding that he was surprised to find an unreceptive, even hostile, environment this year.
But City Manager John Pietig said he isn’t buying the argument. “We feel that it’s important that employees start contributing to their retirement costs,” Pietig said. “We appreciate the firefighters association’s efforts in that regard and we still have work to do.”
Latta said the city has no reason to cut back on pay increases to public service employees.
“When you look at the finances of Laguna Beach, they’re doing just fine,” he said. “Their property tax revenues are higher than anyone else’s in the county.”
Pietig said other cuts have been made to offset the city’s deficit and balance the $64.3 million estimated budget. Police and fire services remain the largest operating expenditures, 21 percent and 14 percent, respectively, according to the city budget. “We’ve eliminated 10 positions citywide saving over $900,000,” Pietig continued. “If we hadn’t done that, we would’ve been spending down our reserves at a much greater rate. The municipal employees association and management gave up two 5-percent pay increases previously. And we do have an ongoing problem largely due to increasing retirement costs.”
Rather than cut salary increases, Latta said the firefighters’ association has presented more than 20 cost-saving proposals to the city, including one he said would significantly reduce health care costs. All, he said, were rejected. “There were a whole lot more things we could have done collaboratively had the city been willing to sit down and work together,” he said. “They just want to do what they want to do and nothing else.”
As requested by Pietig, the contract was brought before the council as an urgency measure and is scheduled to be formally adopted at a special City Council meeting on Oct. 11 so that the terms will take effect on Oct. 17. The city expects to hire at least four new firefighters and train them prior to fire and flood season, according to city reports.
Current firefighters will now be required to contribute half of their 9 percent retirement pay and new firefighters will be expected to make their own 9 percent contribution in its entirety. First-year cost savings to the city will be $148,000 and with an expected annual savings of $215,000 in subsequent years, according to the staff report.
Firefighters received an 11-percent cost of living pay raise in 2006 and a 5-percent increase each succeeding year up to 2010. In the firefighters’ previous five-year contract, pay included retirement contributions equal to 9 percent of salary.
“We didn’t get much of anything. The city just wasn’t willing to give on anything. The only thing that I think you could say we got was a two-year deal and we won’t have to sit and argue with one another for 24 months,” said Latta, who sent a letter to the city, dated Sept. 13, verifying that the firefighters affirmed the terms of the contract.
The city’s police union has also been negotiating new contract terms with the city.
Larry Bammer, president of the Police Employees Assn., said he was surprised that the police contract terms weren’t brought to the City Council at the same time as the firefighters’. “They hired a mediator to negotiate,” Bammer pointed out. “The city didn’t seem willing to negotiate with them.”
Bammer said the police association is not so willing to accept similar terms this time around, adding that the police department has already saved the city $250,000 a year by leaving two command positions vacant with no plans to fill them.
“The city wants to jump on the bandwagon of some other cities that are in dire financial straits and we’re not,” Bammer said. “Laguna Beach is not having financial instability. They were successful in balancing the budget last year.”
Police association members decided “not to fight” for the 5-percent pay raise that was awarded to firefighters last year, Bammer said, to help balance the city budget. “There’s no need for us to contribute (to pension funds) because we didn’t get a pay raise last year,” he said, “and we’re not asking for a five-percent pay raise like they (firefighters) received a year ago.”
Bammer said his counter-offer requests a .5-percent pay raise without requiring police officers to contribute to retirement accounts, but hasn’t heard back yet. “I would think that if they were agreeable to it, both contracts would have gone to the city council at the same time,” he commented.
The previous contract with police employees awarded them an 8-percent cost of living adjustment in 2007 and a 5-percent increase each succeeding year. With three negotiating sessions already conducted, the police association will meet with the city again next Tuesday to continue talks.
Budget-cutting cities across the state are negotiating to require firefighters, police and municipal employees to contribute to their retirement accounts in an attempt to curb costs.
A separate labor contract with the city’s largest employee group, 107 municipal workers and fulltime lifeguards, is not under review and remains in force until June 2013. Due to fiscal constraints and to avoid layoffs, municipal employees agreed to forego 5-percent pay raises in 2010 and 2011.
While city officials have balanced the last two years of operating deficits by selectively reducing expenses, Laguna, like other cities, anticipates rising retirement costs, partly to recover investment losses by the state retirement system.