The path to reaching five-year contracts with the city’s employee unions will be an uphill battle for Mayor Bob Filner.

The mayor acknowledged last week that he doesn’t have the initial City Council support to pursue the long-term deals, which he says could lessen the city’s pension bill by $25 million next year.

Filner and council members have shared their perspectives in multiple closed-door sessions in recent weeks as the city begins contract negotiations with its six employee unions.

But veteran negotiators and union leaders agree that the city must give staffers an incentive to sign off.

“To get a five-year agreement costs you,” said Dan Kelley, who once served as San Diego’s labor relations manager.

The question is what price the city can pay.

On the campaign trail, Filner promised to seek five-year deals that include pensionable pay freezes laid out in Proposition B. The initiative called for the city to transition most new hires to 401(k) retirement plans rather than pensions but saw its greatest savings in the pensionable pay freezes that will require sign-off from the city’s unions.

Though labor support helped buoy Filner into the mayor’s office, unions are unlikely to agree to those terms without raises, increased incentive pay or improved health benefits.

City staffers have gone years without across-the-board pay increases and it’s time for the city to reward staffers for that and other sacrifices, said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association.

Zucchet’s group and others will make those arguments in dozens of proposals and sit-down meetings between now and early April.

The city’s charter calls for the council to vote on any salary increases for next year by April 15, so the negotiating window is limited. If talks aren’t finished by then, any contract updates can be also be approved the following month.

The unions are beginning to submit proposals to the city’s negotiating team, which includes an outside attorney and a handful of city officials.

Those proposals can touch on everything from clarifications on overtime to reimbursement for required work gear, and of course, salaries and benefits.

The San Diego Police Officers Association may seek a significant salary increase this spring after years of concern about low staffing and less-than-stellar retention, said Jeff Jordon, vice president of the police union.

The association is circulating a packet that urges a 10 percent pay increase, an undertaking the union acknowledges could cost $15 million.

Jordon said those figures haven’t been included in any of the union’s formal proposals to the city yet but requests for salary increases are all but certain.

Police want their agency’s compensation to be competitive with others in Southern California and that would require pay hikes, Jordon said.

Police were one of the few employee groups to receive raises in recent years. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders gave officers across-the-board salary increases in 2007 and 2008 but Jordon said cuts in the ensuing years compromised the department’s ability to retain officers.

Other unions have not publicly detailed what wage increases or other benefits they might seek from the city.

Though the unions bring political clout, veteran government negotiators and union leaders agreed the city comes to the negotiating table with the advantage.

Union leaders try to include cost projections along with requests for increased benefits or salaries. They also try to estimate city revenues, potential budget shortfalls and other factors but they don’t have access to all the information that city leaders do.

“We almost have to become a shadow city agency and do our own research,” said Zucchet, whose union represents about 4,000 city workers.

City leaders, by virtue of their position, can pull financial information and projections more easily.

And if the city and a particular union can’t agree on a deal after weeks of talks and assistance from an outside arbitrator, the council can approve rules on wages and working conditions without the union’s consent.

Consideration of a long-term agreement, however, raises questions for both sides.

It’s difficult to predict sales-tax hauls five years out or what legal bills the city might be stuck with. How the economy will fare down the road is also an unknown.

“In order to do a multi-year agreement, you have to be able to anticipate and predict,” said Madge M. Blakey, who spent years as San Diego County’s labor relations director. “That means you have a good, stable past history of doing things to level things out and predict and anticipate and build a good, solid contingency fund.”

San Diego has cash in its reserves to handle potential crises but several unexpected bills already weigh on the city’s budget. The city dealt with the loss of its redevelopment agency, the continued slow economic recovery and a higher-than-expected pension bill in recent months. That’s likely to translate into a $40 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Still, there are benefits to a long-term agreement.

Knowing that staffers are locked into salary or benefit increases makes it easier for the city to plan for expenses and helps the city significantly cut back on labor negotiating costs.

It could also have a positive impact on the city’s pension bill, as we explained in a January post.

To reap those benefits, Filner and his negotiating team will need to persuade union leaders and council members that they’re almost certain of the rosier scenarios.

Bill Kay, a Silicon Valley-based attorney who has represented cities in labor negotiations for decades, said Filner’s success rests on those involved in the process.

“Whether you can have multiple-year agreements depends on who is involved and how they can bring their constituencies to agreement,” Kay said. “That’s very difficult in today’s environment.”

The latter is certainly true for the San Diego City Council.

Filner faces a tough crowd and he’ll need six council votes to approve the five-year agreements.

The mayor said he is determined to fight for those deals.

“(Council members) who don’t do a five-year agreement are giving up that $25 million,” he said at a meeting with reporters last week. “That’s a significant chunk of money that could be used for infrastructure, it could be used for employee benefits, it could be used for anything but by turning down so far a five-year context we are losing out on that $25 million addition to our budget. I would hope over the course of the negotiation that changes.”

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.