Almanac

Viewpoint - May 1, 2013

Editorial: Bring in public on labor talks

As the costs of municipal labor contracts continue to climb, Atherton and Menlo Park are giving the public a chance to comment before their city councils begin labor negotiations, which are held behind closed doors.

Last week, prior to beginning talks with two police employee unions, the Menlo Park City Council heard from about a dozen residents, most of whom were highly concerned with the rising costs of labor contracts.

And in Atherton, upcoming labor talks are likely to be contentious when the town negotiates a new contract with police officers and sergeants. Complicating that discussion is the fact that Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and new council member Cary Wiest both were supported by the police union in the November election. And a recent letter from the union to all residents said there is a staffing crisis on the force that must be addressed.

At the Menlo Park meeting, the three lead organizers of Measure L, the 2010 ballot initiative that reduced pension benefits for non-police employees, continued their attack on high employee costs.

Roy Thiele-Sardina told the council the city has too many employees, saying 230 full-time workers is a number "most of us think is way too high."

Henry Riggs read from a laundry list of suggestions, including implementing a hiring freeze, outsourcing some services and requiring employees to pay more into their pension and health-care benefits.

Edward Moritz said that while Measure L did not address police pensions, it is time that the city address those benefits, which are the main driver of the city's skyrocketing pension costs.

The only contrary view came from union representative Rene Morales of the Service Employees' International, who told the council that current staffing levels are too low and causing stress among employees. He added that existing work conditions had caused recruitment efforts to fail. Mr. Morales' union represents the majority of city employees.

And this points out the box that Menlo Park, Atherton and many other communities find themselves in: If they don't match or exceed salary increases granted by other cities, they could see their highly trained employees jump ship for better wages and benefits elsewhere. From 2005 to 2007 Menlo Park lost 30 police officers for various reasons, including some to retirement. All of a sudden the city found its police department woefully short-staffed, and was forced to pay out huge amounts of costly overtime. It took a vigorous recruiting program to bring police staffing to normal levels the following year.

The vicious merry-go-round of one city trying to meet or exceed salaries of other cities has caused municipal wages to spiral upward at an alarming rate. As salaries get higher, the small, annual percentage increases mean even more dollars are paid out in salary and retirement benefits, which are calculated on the last and highest salary. With strong municipal employee unions backing candidates for local office who will support their cause, it is difficult to imagine when, if ever, these ever-increasing salary increases will stop.

As the Menlo Park and Atherton councils take on this conundrum, it will be good for members to hear the public's take on labor negotiations. The councils should be completely transparent (as negotiation protocols permit) and share their options with the public. One technique, started several years ago by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board, is to share details of a tentative salary agreement with the public 15 days before voting on it, and allow testimony before the board's action. This type of disclosure will at least give residents an idea of what their councils are up against in these often difficult negotiations.

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