Jan Lord has been working for the city of San Diego for eight years. A San Diego native, she came to the city during an economic downturn in 2001 after a year of unemployment. She's a word processing operator, and alongside two other employees, she coordinates training programs for the other 10,000 city workers. When she first joined the municipal workforce, she was a police dispatcher. Back then, she said, morale among city workers was pretty good.
“I don't like admitting to the public that I work for the city,” she told CityBeat. “Then I feel like I have to defend city employees.”
In 2004, not long after Lord transferred from the Police Department to the now-defunct Customer Service Department, the employee-pension scandal broke. The public learned that city officials had negotiated a deal in which the city could make reduced payments into the pension fund in exchange for granting new benefits for city workers.
San Diego had never been much of a union town before, but, suddenly, the public employee unions were the lowest of the low. Politicians tarred their opponents as being in the pockets of the unions. Mike Aguirre spent his term as city attorney blaming the unions for dragging the city down under the weight of employee benefits, and Mayor Jerry Sanders, when he took office in 2005, joined the chorus.
As City Hall worked to dig itself out of the scandal, leaders had to make up for the failure to fully fund the pension by making large annual payments. That meant lean times for the rest of the city departments, which, of course, meant cuts. The unions did their part by accepting pay cuts, no raises or low raises, depending on the union. They gave up some of the more controversial pension benefits for anyone hired after June 1, 2005. Last May, the unions agreed to renovate the pension system yet again with reduced benefits for anyone hired after June 1, 2009.
But then came the autumn of economic discontent, otherwise known as last fall. Declining tax revenues left the city with a $31 million mid-year budget deficit. After having already made many of the relatively painless cuts in 2008 and 2009, the city began to dig deeper into more essential services. Now Mayor Jerry Sanders is projecting a $54-million deficit for the 2010 budget, due on July 1. He's looking everywhere for solutions, including the employees. But the damage may already have been done.
“The employees haven't had a champion in City Hall in years,” said Judie Italiano, head the white-collar Municipal Employees Association (MEA), the city's largest union. “City employees have been left on their own. They go home on weekends and their neighbors say, ‘You're greedy!' They have nothing but their colleagues and their union.” (Of course, the new City Council is viewed by many as union-friendly.)
Italiano believes that while her members may be willing to pitch in, they'll be extremely reluctant to make significant sacrifices for a city that has been so rough on them in recent years.
“This is an aging workforce,” Italiano said. “We have more people closer to retirement than not. I would guess there's going to be quite a bit of hesitancy in taking away a benefit that they're very close to using. But if it's a matter of jobs, then I don't know. Everything has to be on the table.”
Among their issues, workers don't feel like they've been listened to, even when input has been requested in years past. But that appears to be changing this time. Sanders put out a call for ways the city could be more efficient and received more than 300 responses. And City Councilmember Tony Young, who chairs the council's Budget Committee, will hold a hearing on Friday, Jan. 30, dedicated to the city employee unions.
“I'm hoping we'll hear a lot of good ideas—and not just ways to raise revenue,” Young said. “'Cause that would just play into what people already think of unions.”
CityBeat contacted the heads of all five city unions and asked them what they're likely to say at the hearing. They were still in internal discussions about it, but here are a few things they did say (the head of the Police Officers Association did not return CityBeat's calls):
“We think we could charge higher fees for certain inspections,” said firefighter union president Frank De Clercq. “We're not getting back as much as it costs.”
“One typical area would be less use of outside counsel,” said Joan McNamara, president of the Deputy City Attorneys Association. “Use more in-house attorneys.”
“We think there could be cuts in some of the management,” said Joan Raymond, president of the blue-collar Local 127. “Rather than get rid of the people doing the work, maybe cut people who are sending e-mail about doing the work. And then there's lots of ways to raise revenue.”
(Sanders has also expressed support for the idea of saving front-line workers and cutting managers.)
City Councilmember Carl DeMaio thinks the unions can help the city another way: by taking far less money in benefits. Last week, he proposed $69 million in reductions in city contributions to employee healthcare and retirement, plus $3.5 million in unpaid furloughs. All in all, it would completely solve the city's budget woes, but entirely at the expense of city employees.
DeMaio's proposal highlights the limited ways the city can actually alter their worker contracts. The city can't reduce its payments to current retirees without negotiating with each person individually. And city workers, aside from police officers, have been working without a raise for several years now. So to have a direct effect on the city's budget, the workers would either have to take a salary cut, give up some of the city's contribution to their retirements, or give up part of the city's contribution to their healthcare. But the unions, already feeling beset by years of public criticism, are not pleased with DeMaio's idea.
“It shouldn't only be on the employees' back,” McNamara said. “You're trying to make the employees take the blame.”
Young, who's led the effort to get the budget discussion started so early, promises a new attitude toward the unions.“We're not going to do the bashing anymore,” he said. “But everyone is going to have to be part of the solution.”
Lord, sitting in her office, is somewhat reconciled to the idea of having to give up some of what she receives from the city. She just doesn't want to have to bear it alone.
“I'm not saying anybody should do anymore than anyone else,” she said. “We should all share equally in the pain, including the citizens.”
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