SB Council Vacates Work Pact With Firefighters

(October 7) SAN BERNARDINO—A divided San Bernardino City Council this week moved to unwind particular provisions of the city’s contract with firefighters. The vote was immediately protested by the firefighters’ union as illegal, but city attorney Gary Saenz said the action had been given legal clearance by the federal judge hearing the city’s bankruptcy case.
Monday’s move by the city council actuates a tentative alteration of the city’s budget approved on a 5-2 vote in June. That spending plan called for the fire department to shutter one of its fire stations and the implementation of “constant staffing,”
Constant staffing is a strategy by which the department schedules a minimum number of staffed fire engines or paramedic units at all times and apportions those crews by number to correspond with peak usage periods in an effort to reduce manpower demands and head off excessive overtime.
This action played out against a backdrop that includes severe financial challenges to the county seat, a city of 209,924. After years of annual budgets that were essentially unbalanced or otherwise involved heavy borrowing from the city’s reserves, San Bernardino filed a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition in August 2012. In its filing, the county seat asserted it had $180 million in ongoing unfunded liabilities and a $49 million annual operating deficit. Some of the city’s creditors contested the city’s filing, maintaining San Bernardino has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets it could liquidate to make good on its debts.
Despite efforts by some entities, including the state’s pension fund system, opposing the bankruptcy, the city prevailed. Simultaneously, the city was moving to implement a host of cost cutting measures, including seeking concessions from its employee unions on elements within the current employment agreements. Because public safety programs account for some 67 percent of the city’s budget, many of those concessions asked for were from the police and fire unions. When the unions balked at those measures, the city sought permission from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury to impose them unilaterally. Last month, Jury ruled that the city could vacate its existing contract with firefighters, though that ruling did not explicitly state that the city could dictate future terms of its own without further negotiation.
With no further concessions from the firefighters union forthcoming, the city council this week, with councilman Rikke Van Johnson absent, took up the issue of the imposition of the terms the city layered into this year’s budget.
Councilman John Valdivia, a police and fire union advocate, inveighed against the staffing change, saying it risked public safety. Union officials maintained city manager Alan Parker had not negotiated with them in good faith on the changes. Parker responded that the city had straightforwardly laid out its position and gave the union representatives ample opportunity to respond. The difficulty, Parker said, is the unions are absolutely opposed to any further cuts. The city manager said that not only he, but former city managers Charles McNeeley and Andrea Travis-Miller, had repeatedly counseled the city council that the city cannot hope to balance its budget without serious reductions in the amount of money the city is paying for public safety services.
After some contretemps between city council members Fred Shorett and Valdivia over their conflicting views on the necessity of, in the case of the former, reducing public safety funding, and in the case of the latter, maintaining public safety funding, the council deadlocked 3-3 in a vote to impose constant staffing, with councilwoman Virginia Marquez, councilmen Jim Mulvihill and Shorett in favor and Valdivia and councilmen Benito Barrios and Henry Nickel opposed.
Mayor Carey Davis, who is not empowered to vote on issues before the council unless there is a tie, then used his authority to support the imposition of new terms and conditions of employment on the city’s firefighters.
In November, city voters are slated to vote on Measure Q, a proposal to alter the city’s charter to remove a provision that guarantees that both policeman and firefighters be provided with salaries based upon the average pay provided to their counterparts in ten similarly sized California cities.

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