The Santa Rosa City Council signed off on new three-year contracts with its 165 police officers and public safety managers Tuesday following a vigorous debate about whether the city could afford to pay raises totaling 9.5 percent.
The majority of the council felt the increases were justified given the higher pension costs the officers and managers had agreed to shoulder and seemed sustainable given the city’s improving economy.
“Our police force is the envy of everybody in the North Bay,” Mayor Scott Bartley said. “It comes at a cost, and I think it’s a reasonable cost.”
But council members Gary Wysocky and Julie Combs, as they have for similar contracts, argued forcefully that the council was recklessly inking multi-year deals with raises that the city’s financial projections show it cannot afford.
After briefly enjoying a surplus, the city will likely be pushed back into deficits next year because of the cost of new labor contracts, Wysocky said.
“That to me is a huge alarm bell, and it should be for anyone thinking about the sustainability of the organization,” he said.
Bartley, Jake Ours, Robin Swinth and Erin Carlstrom voted in favor of the contract, Wysocky voted against it, and Combs abstained.
In exchange for the raises, the new contracts call for the city’s 135 police officers and 30 police managers to pay 4 percent more toward their pension costs over the term of the contract. That will result in net raises of 5.5 percent, or 1.8 percent per year.
The new contracts also increase uniform allowances by $300 per year and vest allowances by $50 per year, combine the vision and dental plans, align the city’s domestic partner benefits with those of the state and increase slightly the rate at which vacation time is accrued.
The total cost of the new contracts is estimated at $754,000 for the remainder of this year, and $4.9 million over the three-year life of the contracts.
The contracts continue a pattern in recent years of granting raises to workers while requiring them to pay a higher percentage of their pension costs. By the end of the three-year contract, officers and managers will be paying 13 percent of salary toward pensions, more than is required under state law.
Shifting those costs onto workers is projected to help stabilize the ever-increasing annual contribution to the California Public Employee Retirement System. Instead of paying 36 percent of salary to CalPERS, the city will only be paying 32 percent by the third year, Human Resources Director Fran Elm said.
Tim Hughes, president of the Police Officers Association, thanked the council and assured them the contract would help the city attract “exceptional police officer candidates” while retaining the existing force.
Several medical leaves and unfilled positions mean officers often work overtime, Acting Chief Hank Schreeder said. Recruiting new police candidates is challenging right now because lots of departments are hiring “after a lull,” he said. The department will also need to staff up to begin policing the Roseland neighborhood once the annexation of that area is complete, he said.
Wysocky suggested that the 9.5 percent increase over three years might embolden other employee groups to demand more from the city, but Employee Relations Manager Paul Carroll disagreed.
“This specific contract doesn’t really push any boundaries in term of other raises that other units have received,” he said.
But Combs questioned the long-term implications of giving raises to cover employees’ pension costs, noting that future retirement payments will be based on those higher salaries. She, too, said she was worried about the city’s financial “sustainability.”
“These actions, along with other contracts that we’ve agreed to and our total budget, tie the hands of the next council while moving it into debt,” she said.
But Ours expressed confidence in the city’s financial future, suggesting that some of the studies upon which Wysocky was relying were “not thought-out.”
“We’ve looked at what the future is going to hold, and I have no doubt that we’re going to be able to pay our obligations,” Ours said.
Carlstrom, an attorney in private practice, said she felt the debate reflected a “pitting of the working class against itself.” Recalling her own father’s resentments over the generous compensation for public employees, Carlstrom suggested the opposition of some council members was rooted in pension envy.
“I’m not going to pit myself against somebody who has elected to come work for the city because you get a pension and I don’t,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.