http://almanacnews.com/print/story/print/2012/12/26/atherton-council-to-slow-pace-of-compensation-cuts


Almanac

News - December 26, 2012

Atherton Council to slow pace of compensation cuts

by Renee Batti

As expected, the newly configured Atherton City Council rescinded its Nov. 28 adoption of a resolution that would cut compensation for 10 unrepresented town employees.

The compensation resolution was passed unanimously last month, although council members Jerry Carlson and Elizabeth Lewis promised to call for reconsideration of the issue this month, after Cary Wiest replaced Kathy McKeithen on the council.

(Only a council member who has voted in favor of a measure can call for its reconsideration, according to City Attorney Bill Conners.)

In calling for reconsideration this week, the council in effect threw out its earlier endorsement. But council members made it clear that they were not abandoning the policy changes represented in the resolution — bringing employee costs more in line with private-sector compensation and shifting more pension and health-care costs to employees to reduce the town's overall spending on its staff.

Instead, their intent is to tweak some of the resolution's terms to slow the pace of incremental changes, easing the burden on employees, council members Carlson and Lewis said.

Terms of the resolution, which would not affect police sergeants or rank-and-file officers, include capping vacation and sick-leave accrual, capping the town's contribution for health benefits, and requiring employees to pay for more of their contribution toward retirement.

The resolution would also create a two-tier retirement system for new hires, and eliminate post-retirement health benefits for new hires.

Although all five council members voted for the resolution in closed session before the Nov. 28 meeting, Mr. Carlson and Ms. Lewis had a change of heart when the council brought the matter to a public meeting last month.

The council had hammered out the compensation changes for months before its closed-session endorsement, and although the unrepresented employees were kept in the loop, and offered feedback along the way, they were surprised when told the resolution would be voted on in late November, and hadn't been given a chance to review it until the day before Thanksgiving, according to Steve Tyler, the town's public works supervisor and one of the employees who would be affected by the changes.

The employees "are all for getting things right and making concessions. But (the speed of the changes) will put some serious pain on some of us," Mr. Tyler told the council at its Nov. 28 meeting.

Last week's vote to reconsider the resolution was 3-1. Councilman Bill Widmer was absent.

Before casting his vote opposing the reconsideration, Councilman Jim Dobbie said he was surprised by the reversal of his two council colleagues, who had earlier supported the resolution. He said that, by implementing the compensation changes, the council was "fulfilling our stewardship" as elected officials of the town.

He said that 80 percent of the town's expenses go to employee costs, and though it's important to pay staff fairly, Atherton employees are paid "far better than people with equivalent experience" in the private sector.

Mayor Lewis emphasized that "the council is in agreement with a lot of these (changes)." She cited, as an example, a change that will gradually shift all of the employees' share of their retirement costs, which is 7 percent of their pay, to the employees. Many public agencies require employees to pay all or at least some of that cost, but Atherton pays the entire amount, plus the town's own share.

She also said the council is committed to eliminating post-retirement health care for all new hires.

Implementation of the changes is what's at issue, she said. At last month's council meeting, she suggested, for example, that the 18-month time frame for incremental increases in employee contributions to their pensions could be expanded to three years.

Council members directed staff to come back with a revised resolution for them to review at their January meeting.

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