The closed-doors negotiations between Palo Alto and its largest workers' union turned public and testy Monday night when hundreds of city employees packed into the City Council meeting to protest the city's latest proposal that includes cutting back benefits.
Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents about 600 Palo Alto employees, lashed out against the city's proposal to take away benefits such as utilities discounts to retirees who were hired before 1977.
The comments came shortly after an hour-long negotiation session between city management and union officials and before the City Council was scheduled to discuss the budget for fiscal year 2010.
"We are willing to do our share, but we do not want to include permanent changes to our contracts that would not have anything to do with the general fund," local President Lynn Krug said.
The union's current contract, which was negotiated in 2006, expires June 30. The employees' salaries are drawn from both the city's operating budget and its enterprise budget, which funds the Utilities Department.
The council wound up tentatively backing the $141.2 million operating budget proposed by City Manager James Keene and reviewed by the council's Finance Committee. The council is scheduled to adopt the budget officially on June 15.
Krug said union members offered to forgo salary increases in 2010, much as the firefighters union and the police officers union have previously pledged to do. But SEIU members objected to city proposals to cut existing benefits in the workers' contracts, she said.
Greg Schulz, who negotiated on behalf of the union, said city officials asked the union to revise numerous sections of their contract, including those pertaining to health care. It would be difficult, he said, for the union to give up some of the benefits it has worked hard to achieve over the years. He declined to go into the specifics of the city's proposal.
"Our slogan is, 'No takeaways!'" Schulz told the council while about 300 workers in purple T-shirts looked on.
But with the city facing a projected $10 million budget gap, council members have repeatedly indicated that they would be asking workers for some concessions. Councilman Larry Klein said previously that even asking workers to defer raises might not be enough.
The council did not directly address the union's remarks at Monday's meeting. But longtime council observer Bob Moss said retirees currently enjoy excessive benefits and said the union's opposition to compromising on these benefits could only lead to layoffs.
"If the union won't give anything back there's a very simple answer we're going to have a lot fewer workers in Palo Alto because we can't afford them," Moss said. "There's going to have to be a real push in how the city is organized and how we're going to run things and how we're going to fund things," Moss said.
The budget proposes to cut 2.5 positions from the police department, eliminate the assistant planning director position and reduce the city's contribution to its infrastructure funds. It proposes department and service cuts totaling about $2.8 million.
Staff and the Finance Committee also recommended a new parking fee for Foothill College students who park at the Cubberley Community Center. But the council decided to postpone making any decisions on the new parking fee because of community opposition.
Keene said staff will engage the community in the coming months and return to the council with a proposal on the parking fee at the end of the summer.
Councilman Sid Espinosa praised the Finance Committee's work, but suggested that deeper cuts still may need to be made.
"My fear, more than anything else, is that we haven't cut deeply enough," Espinosa said. "I think this is the time to have tough conversations in terms of programs and services we provide and how our city and city staff are thinking about the work they do."