After some bickering, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve a raise for about 500 city employees that, with benefits, will reach 5 percent in two years, and possibly more.

The decision means the employees in the general unit of city employees — which includes everything from custodians and secretaries to engineers and planners — will receive a raise at a time when the city is facing the specter of layoffs to help close a potential $8.3 million budget gap.

City officials, however, say the raise fell a percentage point shy of the 4 percent projection built into the 2008-09 budget for salary increases.

During the first year of the raise, which will begin retroactively on Oct. 1, the employees will receive a salary hike of 2.5 percent, and an increase in their benefits package of a half percent, said Kristine Schmidt, the city’s employee-relations manager. During the second year, they will get a 1.5 percent salary increase, plus another half-percent in benefits. That year, they may also be eligible for additional salary increases, depending on the state of the Consumer Price Index. The two-year cost of the raise is estimated to be $1.8 million.

The lone no vote was cast by Councilman Dale Francisco, who said that, given the state of the economy, now isn’t the time to be giving raises.

“Unemployment statewide is 9.4 percent,” he said. “This is the time to be as frugal as we can with taxpayer money, and riding out this recession.”

His comments irked Councilman Das Williams, who noted that the raise came under-budget, and wondered aloud why Francisco hadn’t brought up his concerns previously.

“I feel it is a little bit grandstanding, and opportunistic, at this time,” Williams said. “I think there has been a significant concession made by the workers. I think that’s shown by the fact that they asked for a lot more, and accepted a lot less.”

Francisco sniped back.

“Thank you, Mr. Williams, for your performance evaluation,” he said. “Of course, we don’t go into detail about what we say in closed session in labor negotiations, but on many occasions I have raised objections to some of the things we have agreed to (as a council).”

In a bid to preemptively reduce the number of layoffs, the city’s administration and the union representing the employees — SEIU Local 620 — are negotiating the possibility of a 5 percent decrease in their pay for next year, which would come in the form of a two-and-a-half-week furlough.

This would offset any raise the employees receive, but only for one year, as the furlough would be a one-time occasion, and the raise is ongoing.

The agreement also includes creating a new paid city holiday — Cesar Chavez Day — on March 31, the birthday of the late civil-rights leader. City employees will take the day off, and the council canceled the meeting that happens to be scheduled for that day.

The city is in negotiations with another bargaining unit that includes water and wastewater treatment employees, as well as harbor and airport patrol officers and part-timers. That unit, too, is represented by SEIU Local 620. Negotiations for police officers and firefighters are already completed. All told, the city has 1,087 full-time employees.

Write to

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at