Thursday, August 26, 1999
Prohibited by law from striking, California''s public safety officers have long sought heavier leverage for squeezing better wages and working conditions out of their employers. They may soon get it.
If passed, state Senate Bill 402 would require cities to submit to binding arbitration when their negotiations with police and firefighters hit an impasse. Cities, however, say such a requirement would not only undermine the likelihood of having constructive negotiations, but also take a large chunk of a city''s budget out of officials''--and therefore voters''--control.
The legislation "has the potential to remove decisions regarding budgets from the policy makers," says Pacific Grove Mayor Sandy Koffman. An arbitrated contract "could just blow a hole in our budget."
Indeed, "salaries tend to be higher" under arbitrated contracts, says Dwight Stenbakken, legislative director for the League of California Cities.
And, he says, arbitration takes a large portion of a city''s purchasing power out of elected officials'' hands because public safety comprises such a large portion of a city''s budget. Pacific Grove and Salinas, for example, devote approximately one-half of their budgets to public safety.
Worse still, according to Koffman and other local city officials, arbitrators won''t even be appointed locally. They won''t be familiar with the district in which they''ve been appointed, and they won''t have any institutional memory or knowledge of where a city''s budget comes from.
"An arbitrator has no accountability except making sure that he or she gets hired the next time," Stenbakken says.
Under SB 402--which has passed the Senate and is being considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee--a panel of three arbitrators would be selected each time arbitration is invoked. Two of the parties to the dispute would each get to pick one of the three panel members; the third, mutually agreed upon panel member, would be the tie breaker, as well as the non-local member.
Key to SB 402 is that it would require arbitrators to rule on each side''s last, best offer on an issue-by-issue basis. Arbitrators could neither craft their own compromise solutions, nor rule on one side or the other''s offer as an entire package. Under this arrangement, the entire risk burden rests on city shoulders, says Mark Gregersen, director of human resources for the city of Vallejo, where all city employees have the right to arbitration. If an employee group feels that it has won as much as possible from the city, it incurs no risk in requesting arbitration; employees only stand to gain from arbitration, Gregersen says.
While employees do incur their share of the not-inconsequential expense of the arbitration process (some estimates place the cost as much as $200,000), because the arbitrator rules on an issue-by-issue basis, employees are unlikely to lose on every decision. So it''s unlikely they will have wasted their financial investment.
Not surprisingly, police and firefighters see arbitration proceedings in a more positive light than do city officials. Binding arbitration, they believe, will make up for their inability to strike. Currently, "management enjoys an unfair advantage going into negotiations," says Dave Puglia, a Sacramento-based spokesperson for the Public Safety Assurance Coalition, which sponsored SB 402.
Moreover, police and firefighters believe that the arbitration process, or the threat thereof, can actually be constructive. Puglia believes that because arbitrators must select one of the two sides'' best offers, both sides have an incentive to make reasonable offers from the start.
Salinas firefighters won a ballot measure last November that gives them binding arbitration rights similar to those sought in SB 402. In February, after negotiating with the city over their contract for some five months, the firefighters declared an impasse and opted to kick their negotiation over to an arbitrator. The first meeting with their arbitration panel was Aug. 24.
Salinas Firefighters Association President Steve Furtado says firefighters sought the right to arbitration as a "fairer" way of deciding not just wage and benefits, but also working conditions. In the past, Furtado says Salinas firefighters have gained support of grievance boards on four separate occasions only to see those boards'' decisions overturned by the city council. Firefighters eventually won each of these disputes through a court process, but the wins weren''t cheap--over $1 million in one case, Furtado says. While arbitrators aren''t free, Furtado believes they will cost less than bringing full-scale court cases.
Furtado disagrees with the notation that arbitration takes the city''s budget out of voters'' hands. He says arbitrators are required to consider an employer''s financial ability to meet the costs of an award.
But city officials remain unconvinced. "If some outside force comes in and says you have to spend more in one place, something else has to give," says Monterey Assistant City Manager Jim Thomson.
Salinas Assistant City Attorney Vera Todorov concurs. An arbitrator''s decision could mean that potholes in streets don''t get fixed, she says.
Moreover, Todorov sees the bill as yet another blow to local decision making. She says it amounts to citizens "giving up control over how their own tax dollars are spent in their own cities."