Editorial: More cops on city streets, if union plays ball

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

The city of Sacramento's budget picture is a bit brighter. Yet even with the recovering economy and a big boost from a voter-approved sales tax, City Hall is certainly not out of the woods yet.

The city still needs help from its employees, police officers in particular, to provide the services that residents deserve.

City Manager John Shirey makes that crystal clear in the spending plan he proposed Monday for the budget year that starts July 1. Of the 40 vacant positions that would be cut in the city's general fund, 33 of them are in the Police Department. Those trims would be avoided if the union representing officers and sergeants agrees to have its members pick up the full employee contribution to their pensions, amounting to 9 percent of salary.

Unless the police union agrees, Shirey also says he will pull his recommendation to add 64 police officers in patrol, investigations and forensics by June 2014. So in total, 97 front-line police positions are at stake in the negotiations between the city and the Sacramento Police Officers Association, whose current contract expires June 30.

According to the city, 59 percent of workers pay the employee portion of retirement costs, saving the city about $9.2 million a year. But it is still paying all or some of those costs for the other 41 percent of workers, amounting to $5 million a year.

The vast majority of employees who are not paying anything into their own retirements are police officers. The ball is definitely in the police union's court.

City Council members, who are scheduled to begin debating the budget on May 7 and adopt it as soon as June 11, can tweak around the edges. But they will be hard-pressed to make wholesale changes, nor should they.

Overall, it is a frugal proposal that keeps the promise to voters to use the windfall from Measure U, the half-cent sales tax hike that started April 1, to restore basic city services – namely fire, parks and police.

The Fire Department would get 80 positions back, enough to add two medic units and improve response time by only having one rotating closure. The Parks and Recreation Department would get 76 positions restored. Eleven swimming pools and five wading pools will be open for the entire summer.

This is the first budget since 2008 that doesn't call for layoffs. More than 1,300 city jobs have been cut since the Great Recession hit.

Still, the longer-term budget outlook remains rather gloomy. The city's pension costs are already rising due to higher payments required by CalPERS, and could jump even higher in 2015-16 and beyond. The city is staring at a $440 million unfunded liability for retiree health care. Measure U expires in 2019; sooner than city officials want, they will have to start figuring out what comes next.

But first things first – and that means reaching a deal with the police union that gets more officers on the beat.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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