The Sacramento City Council appears on board with wrangling bigger pension contributions out of the city's cops and firefighters.
Backing up a recommendation by City Manager John Shirey, members of the City Council said Tuesday the city must get more out of its employees to avoid the most severe cuts to the ranks of public safety workers in the city's history. Without significant changes to employee pension contributions, 62 firefighters and 34 police officers face losing their jobs.
Persuading those employees to give more toward their retirements is seen as more than just a money-saving measure for a city facing a $15.7 million deficit.
Some council members said gaining ground on pensions would make it easier for the city to persuade voters to approve a tax increase in November to fund core city services, including police, fire and parks. City officials could seek an increase in the sales tax or place a levy on property owners.
"I think this is the year the council is really serious about putting a tax measure on the ballot to restore services," Councilman Kevin McCarty said. "Pension reform would certainly help our case."
The council is expected to debate a tax measure as early as next week's meeting.
In the meantime, city labor negotiators will try to persuade the public safety unions to give more toward their pensions. Shirey said the police and fire layoffs would be avoided if those employees agree to increase their pension contributions.
The council did not vote on Shirey's plan Tuesday the budget is scheduled to be adopted June 12 but several council members indicated both in interviews and during budget hearings that they support changes to employee pensions.
"We have to and everyone knows that," said Councilman Jay Schenirer.
Shirey has called for all city workers to pick up the entirety of the employee contribution toward their CalPERS pensions. The city picks up some or all of the employee contribution for cops, firefighters, and other rank-and-file employees, in addition to an employer tab.
The city's pension expense for public safety workers alone is budgeted for $37 million in the upcoming fiscal year, according to budget officials.
Firefighters will begin paying 6 percent of their salaries toward their pensions in January. Shirey wants those workers to pay 9.81 percent of their salaries beginning in July, a change that would generate $4.5 million and spare the dozens of firefighters slated to lose their jobs.
Brian Rice, president of Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522, said the union's members are "coming around slowly that we're probably going to see changes" in pensions.
"It's going on everywhere in the state," he said. "2013 is not 2004, we get that. If anybody thinks that (increased pension contributions) are not on the table, they are not living in reality."
Rice and more than 100 firefighters marched to City Hall on Tuesday to protest the proposed cuts, which they argued would greatly hinder the Fire Department's ability to respond to emergencies. The union has proposed a series of revenue plans to ease the cutbacks, including expanding the city's ambulance fleet and and raising ambulance transport fees.
Shirey said city staff would explore those ideas. However, he said even if the revenue plan becomes a reality, he would still recommend layoffs should firefighters not contribute the entirety of their employee pension tabs.
"We have to make our ends meet," he said.
Some members of the council were receptive to the union's revenue plan. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said increased pension contributions by firefighters alone "is not a be-all, end-all" to solve the city's financial troubles.
While the fire budget drew a large crowd to City Hall, only a handful of residents and police union officials attended an evening budget hearing during which the police cuts were discussed. Last year, an overflow crowd of police officers packed City Hall for budget talks, only to see the council vote to lay off dozens of cops.
Shirey said more officers will lose their jobs this year without significant pension changes. Police officers do not pay any part of their pensions, and Shirey wants those employees to pick up the entirety of a 9 percent employee share.
Dustin Smith, acting president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, said his union is in "very active" talks with city labor negotiators. He said his union has requested several "working condition" changes including changes to time-off policies and exercise times that if enacted could entice officers to agree to pension changes.