Voters, not leaders, confront Vallejo’s mess
Two years after Vallejo made history as the first city in the Golden State to file for bankruptcy, voters have grasped the city’s dire financial situation even if some members of local government haven’t.
Residents appeared to have approved Measure A by a slim margin last week. The vote count is close and provisional ballots are still being counted, so results haven’t been made official. The ballot measure would remove binding arbitration from the City Charter, effectively ending the public employee unions’ grip on labor contract negotiations.
Yet when the Vallejo City Council meets tonight to decide how to close a $20 million budget shortfall in the new fiscal year starting July 1, it will have to factor in a 7.5 percent pay increase for the members of the Vallejo Police Department.
Inexplicably, a year after the city’s 2008 bankruptcy filing decimated city services and forced the layoffs of 60 Vallejo police officers, a council majority approved a round of pay raises.
The new contract, which runs until 2012, provides free health care and a second-year pay increase determined by pay rates in selected other cities.
The only problem with the Vallejo method, pointed out Stephanie Gomes, one of two council members who voted against the pay raise, is that none of the cities selected for comparison are in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings.
It’s one thing for police and fire unions to ignore grim economic reality, but for an elected City Council one year removed from financial ruin, it’s madness.
“To the police and fire unions, it’s like nothing has happened,” said Steven Greenhut, director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center.
“They don’t see what’s going on around us,” he added. “To them, it’s irrelevant.”
His book on the issue, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation,” was published last year.
To make matters even worse, the decision came after the city had won a U.S. bankruptcy ruling last year giving it authority to rescind union contracts as part of its reorganization.
“This presented an opportunity for the city that was squandered by the council majority,” Gomes said. “It was frustrating to watch it happen.”
Never mind this year’s budget shortfall, where $13 million in wage and benefit cuts and another $7 million in service cuts are up for discussion. The officers still expect to be paid, come hell or high water.
Since January 2008, Vallejo has spent $7.8 million in contract negotiations and attorney’s fees fighting challenges to its bankruptcy from employee unions and pension recipients, said Joanne Schivley, a council member who voted with Gomes against the police pay hike.
In earlier council sessions, Mat Mustard, the president of the police officers union, informed the council that officers expect the raise even if it results in layoffs among their ranks.
Mustard was on vacation and did not return calls seeking comment.
With the end of binding arbitration in sight, it’s pretty clear that the police officers union is determined to cash in on one more year of one-sided negotiations, and Vallejo city officials opened the door for them.
On the other side of the ledger, Vallejo firefighters agreed in April to their first pension contribution and to reduced benefits for new hires.
The pay raise for Vallejo police also is a turnabout from the city’s dealings with virtually every other department in the city.
If the council decides to close its fourth fire station in two years, the city will lose paramedic services and have to contract with a private ambulance firm to provide services, Schivley said.
The shortfall also may result in a council decision to defer all infrastructure maintenance and debt service for the next fiscal year.
“When we filed bankruptcy, I thought, ‘OK, this is bottom,’ ” Schivley said.
“Wrong. We haven’t found bottom yet.”
Chip Johnson’s column appears in the Chronicle on Tuesday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.