It may not be the proverbial $500 hammer — like the one that caused Pentagon procurement officials such keen high-profile embarrassment years ago — but Santa Barbara’s Police Officers Association (POA) is hoping to achieve a similar effect with tales of $330 oil changes as part of the union’s campaign to drum up public outrage over proposed cuts to the Police Department’s budget. The POA’s contract expires this summer, and negotiations between the union and city administrators have devolved into a slow-motion game of political chicken.
Occupying the collective hot seat, ultimately, are members of the city council, many of whom were elected with the help of POA endorsements and campaign contributions. In response to a projected $8.9-million budget shortfall, city administrators are asking all bargaining units to make significant pay-and-benefit concessions. Specifically, they’re asking the POA to take a 6-percent pay cut (that’s down from the initial request of 10 percent and the subsequent one of 7.75 percent) which translates to about $1.2 million. Without such concessions, the department’s authorized field strength could be cut from 140 sworn officers to 133. While other bargaining units — like the Service Employees International Union Local 620 — have been relatively eager to trade wage cuts in exchange for the job security of its members, the POA has bluntly declined to go quietly into any bean-counter’s good night.
To that end, Detective Jaycee Hunter has charged that City Administrator Jim Armstrong — of whom the union is especially distrustful — has systematically overcharged the various city departments that rely upon the city’s General Fund for the administrative costs of doing business. For example, Hunter cited an instance where the Administrator’s Office charged the Police Department $330 to have the oil changed on a police vehicle. Jiffy Lube could have provided the same service, Hunter contended, for just $30. Through the wholesale practice of such extravagant billing, Hunter charged, Armstrong has built up an obscure city hall fund — Internal Services— from $1 million in 2004 to $14 million this year. “The reality is that there is a voluminous amount of money in various funds,” Hunter stated, “where, if a very small amount of the money was accessed, the city could adequately fund the Police Department and not destroy the police services in this city, nor put the city in any fiscal problems.”
Not surprisingly, city administrators insist Hunter — and the POA — could not be more wrong. “The reality is quite different from the rhetoric,” stated Kristy Schmidt, city hall’s lead negotiator, of the high-priced oil change. “You’ll see that the comparison to an oil change at Jiffy Lube is just not appropriate.” The car in question, Schmidt pointed out, had 125,000 miles on it and was given a complete checkup and tune-up. The oil was changed, but so were the filters, transmission fluid, and brake fluid. A mechanic with 20 years’ experience spent nearly three hours working on it. The work in question, she insisted, could not have been done for $30.
This past week, the city council weighed in, politely but definitely notifying the POA it was time to put up or shut up. If the union was concerned about the erosion of troop strength — 10 years ago the authorized number of sworn officers was 145; this year it’s 140; next year’s proposed budget calls for 133 — the council offered to restore four of the seven positions slated for elimination. But that funding would be available, the council said, only if the POA agreed to concessions. (These positions have been kept vacant the past year and don’t involve actual officers.) The POA concessions — as well as those exacted from police management and the Firefighters Association — would also be used to restore funding to the Sobering Center, keep the Ortega Pool free to low-income kids on the Eastside, save a fire captain position, and restore half of the $110,000 proposed for elimination by public-access TV channels 17 and 21, among other things. Where Hunter contends the Police Department has seen 41 positions — many civilian support personnel — disappear over the past eight years, city administrators contend the number of sworn officers has not declined dramatically. But the cost of public safety — police and fire — has increased dramatically in that time, they contend. Ten years ago, public safety consumed less than 45 percent of the general fund; today, it’s 52 percent. A big chunk of that, they claim, is enhanced retirement benefits far beyond that offered to non–public-safety workers. But Hunter and the POA demand to know to what extent police officers should be expected to subsidize such things as the Sobering Center out of their own paychecks.
Making matters more complicated, the council has to adopt a balanced budget by June 30. It’s all but certain there will be no agreement between city hall and the POA by that point. City Administrator Jim Armstrong expressed concern that to “balance” the budget, he’ll have to assume he has $2 million in concessions from the police and firefighters unions that have yet to materialize. In the meantime, the war of words — and dueling statistics — between city hall and the POA shows no sign of abating. This Friday morning, the union will be speaking at a special hearing of the Fire and Police Commission — held in city council chambers as opposed to its traditional quarters in the basement of the police station — entitled “Crisis at the Santa Barbara Police Department.”