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Tuesday, May 09, 2006 | Mayor Jerry Sanders praised the firefighter and deputy city attorney unions for tentatively agreeing to forego pay increases in the upcoming year, a sign that the new mayor sought to compromise with the unions he vowed during the campaign to battle with in order to force harsher benefit requirements.

The new, one-year contracts provide more to workers than what Sanders said he would dole out while campaigning last fall, but less than what union officials said employees should be paid after receiving a freeze on their salaries this fiscal year.

“Our citizens want us to get our own house in order before we start giving raises,” Sanders said. “I do want to thank the firefighters and deputy city attorneys for being understanding of the city’s problems.”

To be enacted, the deals must be ratified by the membership of each union – the Deputy City Attorneys Association and City Firefighters Local 145 – before being reviewed by the City Council. Council President Scott Peters said he anticipates that the council will approve the contracts when they’re considered in June. The contracts would go into effect July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Last week, the council declared an impasse with the Police Officers Association for second straight year after the union and city failed to come to terms. The city’s two remaining unions, which represent white- and blue-collar city employees, already have multiyear contracts in place.

Sanders, who campaigned as the financial reformer best fit to fix the fiscally challenged City Hall, called on the city’s unions to accept several concessions dealing with health care and pension benefits last fall while running for office. He said rollbacks were needed in order to slow the growth of the ballooning benefit deficits facing the city, and threatened to file for municipal bankruptcy if the unions did not agree. Currently, the city’s pension deficit is $1.4 billion and it has a $1 billion funding shortfall for retiree health care.

The concessions Sanders said he’d seek on the campaign trail included freezing pay, increasing the retirement age from 50 to 55 for public safety workers and from 55 to 60 for general employees; requiring employees to pay more out of their paycheck to the pension plan and for healthcare; eliminating workers’ ability to purchase years of service to boost their future pension checks; and imposing a mandatory work furlough.

The mayor said he did not seek the concession package he campaigned on when his staff met with the two unions in negotiations. During the campaign he said his concessions would save the city at least $50 million annually, yet in announcing the deals Monday, he fell well short of that.

The Deputy City Attorneys Association did agree in the tentative deals to pay more into the pension fund. Firefighters’ and police officers’ rates will stay the same in 2007.

Although he will not achieve most of the labor goals he set forth in next year’s deals, Sanders said he feels he has kept his campaign promise because he plans on designing a new retirement system that he says will provide less cost and more certainty to the city’s pension obligations.

Sanders said he will also be conducting a “comprehensive review” of salary and benefit levels for employees over the next year to better compare the city of San Diego to other local agencies.

Firefighters union president Ron Saathoff said the salary review was important because firefighters were leaving the city’s fire service to pursue jobs in other agencies.

While noting that police officers were departing from San Diego more rapidly than the firefighters, Saathoff said the exit of three firefighter-paramedics in the last week show that the stagnant salary levels, higher health care premiums and rising housing costs have also become an obstacle to retaining firefighters, who are usually in high supply.

“Typically the San Diego Fire Department the lowest turnover rates of any agency within the city of San Diego. That’s changing,” Saathoff said.

The firefighters’ one-year contract also includes the right to bereavement leave, allows the city to more easily review certain positions within Fire Department, and extends the city’s deadline by one year to leverage the money the city saved this year by requiring firefighters to pay a larger share of their own pension expenses.

Diane Silva-Martinez, president of the Deputy City Attorneys Association, said the changes included in her union’s contract were more about including “standard clauses” that provided specifics on termination, grievances, performance reviews and management structure. Because the union is only two years old, its contract was lacking basic language of “similarly situated groups.”

Silva-Martinez said the protections being sought were not because of the controversial management style of Aguirre, who heads the office.

“These provisions are irrespective of who the city attorney is,” she said. “We’re not trying to come up with real original language here.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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