Wednesday, April 25, 2007 | San Diego’s firefighters will not receive a pay raise in the coming year after the City Council voted Tuesday to freeze their pay for a third consecutive year.

The council’s decision followed a weeklong struggle over both the merits of a raise as well as the power of the City Council to override Mayor Jerry Sanders’ negotiations with City Firefighters Local 145. Last week, the council, shorthanded by the absence of three members, was unable to act on the negotiations after two council members signaled their desire to buck the mayor’s plan to offer no pay raise.

On Tuesday, with the eight-member council at full strength, a move to provide a 2 percent pay hike fell one vote short of the support needed for a raise. Instead, the council voted for the proposal Sanders originally laid out, which held salary levels steady while also overhauling the health care plans available to firefighters.

Council President Scott Peters and council members Toni Atkins, Jim Madaffer and Ben Hueso supported a salary increase. Council members Kevin Faulconer, Tony Young, Brian Maienschein and Donna Frye voted against it.

Peters and Madaffer voted for Sanders’ proposal after the 2 percent raise proposal fell short.

The council president, who acknowledged that he proposed a 2 percent pay hike when the council huddled in closed session, said he thought the deal was insulting.

“I’m really lamenting that we’ve reached the point that we’re treating our employees like this,” Peters said.

Tuesday’s hearing brought to a close labor negotiations held between the city and three of its unions. The council signed off on a pay raise of between 8 percent and 9 percent for police officers, but froze pay for the Deputy City Attorneys Association and the firefighters union.

Sanders has argued against pay raises for city employees, saying the cash-strapped city can’t deal with more strain on its payroll costs, which include billion-dollar deficits in the pension system and retiree health care. Although he was forced to abandon that strategy with regard to police officers, Sanders has built pay freezes into his five-year financial plan, which includes several hundred layoffs in order to pay down long-term liabilities, such as the pension plan and crumbling infrastructure.

The mayor differentiated his raise for the cops and his freeze for firefighters. The raise was “market-driven” by a recruitment and retention problem that contributed to the recent loss of an average of 14 police officers a month.

In total, 125 police officers left the city of San Diego in the past year for other law enforcement departments, according to city figures.

Comparatively, three firefighters have left for other agencies, the city says. Sanders said that the situation didn’t present the same pressing need, despite his appreciation for San Diego firefighters, who have not had received a pay raise since the 2003 Cedar Fire.

“I appreciate the difficult position in which we find ourselves,” Sanders told the council, continuing, “I oppose a raise, most notably because of the city’s financial situation and because there’s no market demand for a pay raise this year.”

Council Cool to Firefighter Raise

  • The Issue: San Diego firefighters will forego a pay raise for the third straight year.
  • What It Means: Mayor Jerry Sanders won a battle of political might that tested council members’ loyalties between an influential employee group and a popular mayor.
  • The Bigger Picture: Firefighters warned that the pay freeze will prompt several firefighters, particularly younger ones, to leave the city for better pay elsewhere.

The firefighter deal also includes the imposition of a new health care policy that shrinks the number of insurance carriers in an effort to stockpile wholesale purchasing leverage for the city. The health benefits for certain firefighters — primarily those who are unmarried or without children — would also shrink under the plan. After converting the health options for the three unions’ who bargained this spring, Sanders hopes to move the blue- and white-collar unions into the fold in next year’s negotiations.

Firefighters said they were disappointed by the council’s decision Tuesday, noting that they had sacrificed their pay in recent years in order to help the city turnaround its bleak fiscal situation. In 2005, the firefighters agreed to forego a raise and pay 5.7 percent of their salary to the retirement fund. Last year, they agreed to a one-year deal that froze their pay.

Several dozen off-duty firefighters, adorned in Fire Department T-shirts and wielding colorful signs, filed into the council chambers Tuesday after about 150 rallied outside and attended marathon council meetings last week.

Those in attendance grumbled about the council vote immediately after the meeting, saying they expected their colleagues to begin departing from the city of San Diego in the coming months. Specifically, they anticipate the flight of younger firefighters, who are disadvantaged by the health care overhaul and worse off than their seniors when compared to other departments.

“I’ve served for 24 years, but if I were here for five years, I’d go,” said firefighter Mike Johnson, a captain at the Pacific Beach station. With the increase in his retirement contributions, the rate of inflation, and rising health premiums, Johnson estimated that his take-home pay is 15 percent less than what it was two years ago.

Frank De Clercq, vice president of Local 145, said the union is currently assisting firefighters to look for jobs elsewhere. “People are going to look at those agencies and see where they can get compensated best,” he said. “It’s really our job to try to help these folks the best we can.”

Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz said De Clercq’s proclamation was a reason why San Diegans have lost trust in public employee unions, saying that he suspects the union is trying to drum up a problem in order to pressure the city into granting a raise.

Politically, the firefighters have been an influential group, having endorsed and spent tens of thousands of dollars on every sitting council member at one time or another during city elections.

But the union, like other employee groups in the city, have taken hits in recent years in the wake of the city’s past pension deals, which boosted workers’ benefits. The episodes led to a sizable deficit in the retirement fund and the filing of criminal charges against several former pension officials, including firefighters union president Ron Saathoff. The 2005 election that sent Sanders to the mayor’s office featured the pension system as the centerpiece issue.

Similar to the firefighters, the support of Sanders is also coveted by council members. The debate appeared to stretch the loyalties of some council members, most notably the three councilmen — Faulconer, Maienschein and Madaffer — who were absent last week. They were seen as wild cards on the issue because all three are Republicans, like Sanders, and enjoy the firefighters’ backing.

Council members who opposed a raise said the lessons of those past pension deals indicated that the city couldn’t spend more money on its employees than it had. Frye, who has advocated for a tax increase, said she supported a pay increase if the city could afford it, but that “this doesn’t seem any different to me than what happened in the past.”

A 2 percent increase would have added an extra $2 million to the budget and added to the city’s annual pension payments.

The lack of support for a raise staved off a simmering dispute over the division of powers between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council. Under the strong-mayor form of government, the mayor conducts the negotiations with unions, but the council has a final say on labor agreements. Last week, the council wouldn’t support the mayor’s proposal, but the mayor said he would not open up labor talks to include a pay raise that Peters and Atkins pushed for.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre released a written opinion for how to resolve the internal disagreement Monday. If the council wants to raise firefighters’ pay, Aguirre advised that they agree to impose the mayor’s offer on the union, but then tweak the related legislation that enables the city to pay employees so that it reflects the amount of the raise. The council could not force the mayor to bring its desired contract to the bargaining table, Aguirre said.

Joel Klevens, the attorney for the fire union, disagreed. He said the council’s rules allow for the council to act as arbiters between the mayor and the union.

“They had the discretion to do what they did, but they didn’t do what they had the power to do,” Klevens said. “They were bamboozled by the city attorney.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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