It is one of the eternal quirks of public officials that when they choose not to spend money — money that they don’t have — they always pat themselves on the back for having “saved” it.

Chula Vista just took this to a whole new level. The city is so desperate for cash they have mailed ballots to residents and pled with them to approve an emergency sales tax increase without which city officials say they’ll have to cut sensitive city services.

The police have been calling residents at their homes warning of the pain and public safety hazard that they will face if they reject the sales tax. This comes, of course, after the state just implemented its own emergency increase to the sales tax for everyone.

Amid all of this, the city has agreed to give its police and firefighters comparatively healthy, guaranteed, across-the-board salary increases for each of the next five years.

Lani Lutar, the CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, passed along copies of the most recent agreements that Chula Vista officials signed with their employee groups. The public safety raises are set in stone. Well, as durable of stones as a nearly bankrupt city can find.

As things stand, even if voters approve the sales tax increase, the city’s mounting liabilities will force it to lay off 40 employees. And these aren’t just government “layoffs” where the people actually just transfer to other departments with vacant positions. No, these are real pink slips handed to people who probably would be OK not getting a raise at all.

Yet the city seems to think it’s completely legitimate to promise some of its employees five years’ worth of raises when it can’t promise its residents even five years of solvency.

The laws of the universe are sufficiently warped in Chula Vista right now that government officials legitimately aimed for this outcome. It might seem completely asinine to you and, well, to me to give firefighters and police any raise at all at a time like this — let alone one guaranteed every year for five years.

But you have to think about it while also keeping in mind what happened a few years ago. When you do that, it totally makes sense. (Perhaps this is part of the problem with government and aging bureaucracies everywhere: So many people who work there understand so well how things got the way they are that they don’t stop to think about how weird it all really ended up.)

Several years ago (the last time the firefighters and police negotiated their compensation) Chula Vista’s city leaders were watching the housing boom like wide-eyed revelers at a Fourth of July fireworks show. They didn’t ever imagine that the fireworks would eventually stop. And they never thought the bill for all the treats they bought would ever come.

They promised and gave firefighters and police many years worth of healthy across-the-board pay increases. Remember this is on top of, or actually below, the regular merit and experience increases the employees received. Officers from other cities came knocking on Chula Vista’s door from places like the city of San Diego. Now the police are on the phone calling residents, pleading with them to increase the sales tax and warning of the dire consequences to public safety if they don’t.

The last year of their guaranteed raises has come and the city is so broke that if it granted the raise, it would have to cut dozens of other city employees. That means truly sensitive cuts to city services.

Under new leadership, the city’s managers have apparently decided they needed to confront this reality because they were also watching the city completely unravel.

So the firefighters agreed to forego the 4 percent raises they expected this year and the 4 percent raises they expected next year in exchange for two raises in 2011: One, at the beginning of the year of 2 percent and one at the middle of the year for 1.5 percent. Then they get 1.5 percent increases across the board each of the following four years.

The police did something similar.

I got a hold of Scott Tulloch, the sober, intelligent, decisive, and former “interim” city manager (unattractive qualities his were, surely, indicated by how quickly they passed him over for the permanent position).

Tulloch said giving the firefighters and police guaranteed raises for so many years was a good deal because it locked them into this rate. He’s assuming that if the city forced the firefighters to, say, agree to have their salaries frozen, then in a few years the city would feel obligated to give them a substantial raise in a couple of years. This prevents that from happening.

“It’s very beneficial to the city. The odds are they would have negotiated a larger raise in coming years,” he said.

Tulloch, like I said, is no dummy and he’s working within the system the way it is, not the way he thinks it should be.

But any system where it’s logical for so many workers to get guaranteed salary increases at a time when the city is teetering on financial disaster is a system that has drifted wildly off course.


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