The La Habra City Council this week passed a budget that ends a furlough program but freezes salaries, suspends a vacation buyback program, and for the first time requires Police Department employees to pay into their own pension accounts.
These and other austerity measures, which won council approval by a 4-1 margin, will save the city nearly $600,000 in fiscal year 2010-11, according to Jennifer Cervantez, assistant to the city manager.
La Habra’s decision puts it at the forefront countywide when it comes to targeting police benefits to balance budgets. Historically, police have paid less than other public employees for their benefits and elected officials have feared the political reprisals of making them pay more.
Police union officials are none too happy with the new budget. Jim Tigner, president of the La Habra Police Association, said the union hoped to continue the furlough program currently in place, which amounts to a 5 percent pay cut.
“It is unfortunate that we are at this point tonight,” Tigner said.
City officials said they gave the union two options: Take a 6 percent pay cut for the year through furloughs; or accept the pension payment plan that will cost current employees 7 percent of their pay and 9 percent for those hired after July 1 of this year.
Cervantez said LHPA rejected the two options, which were the city’s “last, best and final offer.”
With no clear resolution in sight, the council declared an impasse in its negotiations with the union and voted in favor of the new pension plan, rather than continuing furloughs in the Police Department.
Councilman Tim Shaw said the upcoming end of the fiscal year left the city with little time for further negotiations.
“We’re not Sacramento. We’re not Washington, D.C.,” Shaw said at this week’s council meeting. “We actually pass our budgets on time, balanced each year, so we have to do something here tonight.”
At the meeting, Tigner argued for furloughs that would cost employees 5 percent of their pay rather than the 6 percent the city offered. He pointed out that there was an overall reduction in crime while the program was in effect in 2009-10.
“These people have been doing more with less and have been on furloughs for the past year and have made it work,” Tigner said. “They have kept crime in check. We’ve had a year’s worth of empirical evidence that demonstrates that, yes, some officers are not always there because of the furloughs, but they’ve made it work.”
But Tigner was ultimately unsuccessful in convincing the council that furloughs would not endanger public safety. Shaw said he was concerned by a report prepared by city staff showing that furloughs would reduce police presence in the city by 10,000 man-hours.
“For City Hall employees, it’s one thing to close City Hall one day a month. … I think that’s pretty manageable,” Shaw said. “I really don’t like furloughs in the Police Department.”
Councilwoman Rose Espinosa agreed with Shaw.
“I would rather make sure the police officers are on the beat,” Espinosa said.
Mayor G. Steve Simonian, the most vocal councilmember against implementing furloughs, said changes to the retirement system were the best option for the city.
“It’s quite clear to me that furloughs — I don’t believe — work to anybody’s benefit,” Simonian said. “Taking cops of the streets doesn’t make sense to me.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gomez was the only member of the council to oppose the changes to the retirement system and advocated heading back to the bargaining table. Gomez also opposed furloughs for Police Department employees and said that a compromise on overtime could be an alternative.
“This coming year we will have spent close to $1 million in overtime pay for the Police Department,” Gomez said. “It seems to me that if we would not impose the furloughs and we were to keep the cops on the street and not do the PERS, that there will undoubtedly be a significant cost savings there on this contract in overtime.”
The council rejected Gomez’s proposal to continue bargaining but instructed city staffers to hold informal meetings with LHPA to see if any other savings could be worked out.
Tigner said he doesn’t know what would be accomplished by the informal meetings.
“I don’t know where they’re going with that. I guess we’ll find out,” he said.
— JUSTIN VELASCO
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