Achilles' Heel in 2012 budget | June 17, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 17, 2011

Achilles' Heel in 2012 budget

Spending plan is based on shaky expectations for police, fire unions

City Manager James Keene has creatively balanced the $146 million budget for 2012 by squeezing $1 million from departmental expenditures, including $300,000 by shrinking six Public Works divisions into three, and by betting that the city will receive $4.3 million in voluntary givebacks from the police and fire unions. The City Council will take a final look and is expected to approve the budget at its Monday meeting.

While the city manager is absolutely correct to push hard on public-safety expenditures, which account for 56 percent of the city's total personnel costs, if the unions stare him (and the council) down in this macho exercise, the only alternative will be for significant layoffs in both departments that ultimately may prove to be very unpopular with residents.

Palo Alto Professional Firefighters Local 1319 has already reached impasse in its contract talks and is headed to binding arbitration, which could be completed this fall. The contract with the police union expires at the end of June, but city officials believe an arrangement can be made to avoid an impasse.

But if neither union agrees to contribute its share of the $4.3 million in givebacks expected of them, acting Public Safety Director Dennis Burns predicts some dire consequences that will hit both departments with very substantial cuts.

For example, after dropping 31 positions since Fiscal Year 2003, to save its $2 million share of the 2012 budget the Police Department would face losing another 11 sworn officers, reducing the total to 80 from 91. Detectives, traffic officers and patrol officers would be lost if such a cut were implemented.

And if the firefighters union does not accept $2.3 million in cuts, the Fire Department could be forced to drop one engine company and three firefighters, which would push the department below the contentious 29-firefighter-minimum-staffing-level called for in the contract. Burns said if staffing levels reached 25 at any time, the city would begin to "brown out" or temporarily close selected fire stations. Under the other option the city would drop an engine company and a rescue company, cutting staff from 108 to 90 positions.

Whether this "toe-to-toe" bargaining will pay off won't be known until this fall, when arbitration proceedings with the firefighters union are completed. The police union may reach a deal with the city, although there is no certainty at the moment.

Without significant concessions from the public-safety unions this year, the city will be looking at a major structural budget deficit in upcoming years, including $6 million to $7 million shortfalls in 2013 and 2014. If that occurs, the city will be forced to look at even more layoffs and service cuts.

One way the council could gain more control of its budget is to place a measure on the fall ballot asking voters to rescind the binding arbitration provision for public-safety unions in the city's charter. We were disappointed to see the Policy and Services Committee deadlock 2-2 on the ballot question, but the full council will address the issue this Monday, along with the budget.

Binding arbitration is the roadblock for bringing control of public-safety staffing back to the council and the city manager's office, where it belongs. When it can cost the city $150,000 or more a year in salary and benefits to support one firefighter or policeman, it makes no sense to handcuff city managers with this provision in the charter.

The public-safety issue overshadows the city manager's excellent work in other areas of this year's budget, where costs have remained in check, in contrast to the public-safety expenditures, which have nearly doubled from about $33 million in 2000 to more than $60 million today.

Overall, the proposed budget is forecasting a 3.4 percent revenue increase, a 3 percent expense increase, while producing a tiny $131,000 surplus. This balancing act comes in spite of the rising costs of personnel benefits, which jumped $4.3 million this year, including $2.5 million more for pensions, $700,000 more for health care and $1.1 million more in retiree medical benefits. The city's reserves of $27 million are 18 percent of the proposed budget of $146 million.

Overall this is a relatively easy budget year for Palo Alto, if the public-safety unions support the city manager's proposed givebacks. If not, there will be more pain down the road when it looks like layoffs will be the only answer.