Editorial: City must hold line on employee costs

Published: Friday, Jun. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

Sacramento's contract with its police union expires on Sunday. No final agreement on a new deal has been reached nor is any expected before then. Nonetheless, both sides say productive discussions continue.

They have agreed to bring in a mediator – a neutral party to help them bridge differences – a good sign.

Dustin Smith, president of the Sacramento Police Officer Association, says his members know that eventually, sometime during the next contract, they will have to pay their full employee share of retirement. That's a cost now borne by the city for rank-and-file police, but which most other city workers pay themselves.

Ending that perk will save the city $4.2 million a year, but police want the city to give something back in return. The city is balking at that, which is understandable.

If Sacramento were to give in to the demands of its police union, it would soon find itself in the same position as the county. A few years ago Sacramento County sheriff's deputies agreed to forgo the employer pickup of the employee share of retirement. In exchange for that concession, supervisors approved hefty salary increases, which the county is now struggling to pay.

Even during the recession, city police, like county deputies, continued to receive generous pay raises. While many in the private sector either lost jobs or accepted pay cuts and many government workers were furloughed, between 2005 and 2013 Sacramento police salaries rose 29.6 percent.

Smith complains that pay rates for Sacramento police lag behind the collection of cities Sacramento compares itself to at bargaining time including San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield and Fresno. But as the bankrupt cities of Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino have shown, the measure ought not be what other cities pay but what Sacramento can afford.

Because their union refused to concede, 10 Sacramento police officers were laid off last year. Because the union is still holding out, the city has been unable to fill 30 vacant positions, including 29 sworn officer slots and four civilians that had been budgeted for the coming year.

The city is bracing for higher pension costs that will kick in two years from now. Those higher costs are the result of generous retirement promises. Sacramento police and firefighters can retire in their early 50s with 90 percent of pay plus guaranteed cost of living increases.

The city has not reached agreement with its firefighters, either, and like the police pact, the firefighters' contract expires on Sunday. Because firefighters last year agreed to pay their full share of retirement, less money is at stake and negotiations have been less contentious.

Also, early in negotiations the city gave up on its quest to save almost $3 million by reducing staffing from four to three on seven of the city's 24 engine companies in suburban neighborhoods. Three to an engine staffing is standard at the state and in most suburban fire departments. If the union had conceded in that area, the city could have restored one browned-out company and saved money without compromising safety. The city needs to make three to an engine a staffing priority in all future negotiations.

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