In an unprecedented move, Santa Barbara’s Police Officers Association (POA) announced on Wednesday that it is willing to accept possible cash concessions to help the city bridge its $9 million budget shortfall. The politically powerful labor union has been embroiled in negotiations with City Hall after City Administrator Jim Armstrong earlier this month recommended the cops, who are facing $3 million in budget cuts, swallow a 10 percent reduction in wages and benefits. That degree of hypothetical downsizing, it was reported, would mean the necessary loss of 23 police personnel.
According POA head Sgt. Mike McGrew, the union has countered with a five percent cut, which translates to a three percent reduction in pay, a one percent loss in vacation cash-outs, and a one percent concession in health insurance contributions. All told, the bargain would reportedly save the city over $1,000,000 in cash next year and prevent the police from having to cut any positions. “What we have put on the table is a concession that has real cost savings to the city and enables it to keep the staffing and service that we currently have,” said McGrew.
During closed session on Tuesday, however, city staff and council rejected the offer, saying that while they’re pleased the POA has come forward, its offer is insufficient. “Five percent is a significant move for them,” said Kristy Schmidt, the city’s employee relations manager and labor negotiator. “The problem is that it’s not enough to address the budget without having to conduct significant cuts in services.” Mayor Helene Schneider, while also happy that the police are trying to work with the city, says its too premature to accept anything without final budget numbers, which are pending. Two councilmembers are reportedly inclined to support the offer, but even they have expressed skepticism that McGrew will receive the necessary majority vote.
Last year, Schmidt said, all non-sworn bargaining units gave five-and-a-half to seven percent concessions. When the city approached them this year, however, they agreed to “talk and help out with the problem” again, but were emphatic that the police and fire unions contribute equally. Schmidt went on to say that the other unions, by including “me too” clauses in their possible equity agreements, would be able to take concessions equal to what the POA settles on. She also indicated that other unions, such as the Supervisors Association, didn’t even have to come to the table as they still have active labor agreements. The POA’s contract with the city, on the other hand, expires at the end of June.
For McGrew, the recent rejection of his union’s proposal is the latest development within an ongoing, contentious relationship between him and Armstrong. “He’s basically operating off of greed mode right now,” said McGrew. “He thinks he can get more based of everything they’ve set up,” he continued, referencing what he calls the overly-dramatic, “doomsday” $9 million figure that Armstrong originally came up with.
The closed session on Tuesday, during which administrators determined the five percent the POA offered wouldn’t cut it, was an opportunity for staff to see if the POA would blink, McGrew said. “We’ve said that we don’t want to go into a big battle with Armstrong, but he said he wants to fight.” McGrew, however appears wearied by the struggle and, as he puts it, simply wants to “get it done.” “I don’t even want to get into negotiations again at this point. What are we gonna do? Have them hire an attorney and insult us? We could have Don Rickles do that and it’d be more entertaining.”
The move of going public on Wednesday with the POA’s position, McGrew indicated, will hopefully spur City Hall into reaching an agreement with police sooner rather than later. But when all is said and done, McGrew went on, the decision won’t be made in an accountable, public fashion, but “over lunch or at the water cooler.” “The rest of it’s just a game in showmanship,” he said. “We’re way past that.” It’s important to note that as heated as McGrew’s remarks have been this time around, the overall tone of the lingering contention, both sides have remarked, is much more subdued. And McGrew, while still butting heads with Armstrong, is undeniably happier these days now that Marty Blum is no longer mayor, as their relationship was nothing if not touchy.
It remains to be seen what figure the city and the POA will compromise on, but as of now, Schmidt is trying to stay positive during the haggling, “We’re really hopeful we’ll be able to reach an agreement with the police. We don’t want to ask for any more than we need to. At the same time we have very, very serious budget issues.”