[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]
As with many organizations, personnel accounts for the bulk of the city of Santa Barbara’s annual expenses — 78 percent, to be exact — and the cost of salaries and benefits have been rising steadily over the past decade. Between 2001 and 2010, General Fund salary and benefit outlays have increased by $23.98 million, to $75.85 million.
Of the city’s 1,045 employees, 89.5 percent are union members and cost increases correlate to higher rates of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, as well as each new negotiated contract.
Elected officials, managers and those involved in labor relations are barred, or exempt, from union membership because of a conflict of interest.
Santa Babara’s staffing levels haven’t changed drastically even as budgets increased. The municipal workforce peaked in 2009 with 1,084 employees, and next year the city is expected to have around 1,015 positions, the lowest level since 1999.
Beyond each municipal employee’s base salary, which ranges from $3,000 to $20,000 monthly, Santa Barbara provides special pay, health plans, workers’ compensation, vacation time, retirement benefits and pensions.
Nonunionized staff receive comparable benefits to union staff, but their cuts or concessions come without negotiations.
Benefits include medical plans, life insurance coverage and possible monetary allowances for mortgage loans, uniforms, tools, safety equipment and transportation.
Paid time off includes jury duty, holidays, sick leave and vacation time depending on the employee’s years with the city. The allotted time off ranges from 96 to 224 hours per year.
With the exception of hourly workers, all employees can cash out their benefit plans to a certain degree, including vacation time, sick leave and benefits.
Special pay includes special duties like HazMat or waterfront maintenance dives, acting outside a job’s description, and overtime. All employees except police managers and unrepresented managers and attorneys are eligible for the time-and-a-half overtime pay, but even they are eligible in a time of emergency duty or mutual aid.
Workers compensation costs, which have been decreasing lately, apply to work-related injuries or disabilities.
Nonsafety (or miscellaneous) workers’ at-home injuries are broken down to determine how much work contributed to the injury. If it’s decided work is 80 percent at fault, workers’ compensation pays 80 percent of the bills.
However, public safety employees who are injured receive 100 percent of their pay for up to a year if they cannot work, as all “injuries they sustain are assumed 100 percent-related to work” regardless of lifestyle, city finance director Bob Samario said.
Hiring and Firing
Since the city’s effectiveness depends upon the employees hired, it’s all about offering competitive salaries and benefits, City Administrator Jim Armstrong said.
Armstrong and his staff evaluate whether salaries and benefits are comparable to other agencies and adjust for cost-of-living increases, the job’s responsibility or other jurisdictions within a “commute radius.”
No changes are ever made to salaries or benefits without City Council approval, said Kristy Schmidt, the city’s labor negotiator and employee relations manager.
Compensation principles are to attract and retain employees without spending more taxpayer money than necessary, she said.
Workers move through the five salary steps with merit increases each year they perform well, human resources manager Barbara Barker said at a recent budget meeting.
Once an employee reaches the top step, his or her base salary can only increase through negotiated raises.
After a probationary year, employees are generally let go if there’s any doubt of their performance, since represented, classified employees have an extensive firing process, including an administrative hearing.
Historically, about 30 or 40 employees leave, retire or are fired per year.
Discipline takes “a long time for us,” and five-to-10 city workers are fired each year, Barker said. Meanwhile, managers, supervisors and some others remain at-will.
In rare occasions, an employee will do less-than-stellar work just before retiring, as the long firing process is unlikely to get in their way, officials acknowledged.
“I can’t lie to you and tell you it doesn’t happen,” Samario said.
Schmidt is the city’s labor negotiations representative, and she meets in closed sessions with the City Council to get direction. She negotiates with union staff, members and attorneys to reach an agreement everyone can live with, she said.
The Meyers-Milias-Brown Act outlines proper labor negotiations, and the city must confer with unions in good faith to reach an agreement.
If those standards are met and an agreement cannot be made, the City Council can unilaterally adopt the last, best and final offer, Armstrong said.
Each union has negotiated higher salaries and benefits with each contract, until now, according to memoranda of understanding.
Service Employees International Union Local 620 represents Treatment and Patrol and the General Unit, which negotiated for 34.5 percent and 31 percent in raises since 2000, respectively. The City Supervisory Employees Association has received 19 percent raises in the last decade. The hourly unit of employees is also represented by SEIU Local 620.
“We were negotiating salary and benefit increases that were generous at the time, but seem unsustainable in hindsight,” Samario said.
Getting labor concessions isn’t a regular practice for the city, but many unions have voluntarily negotiated for postponed raises, suspended vacation cash-outs or furloughs — unpaid leave.
Although there have been no layoffs of city employees, there is a hiring freeze and vacant positions are being cut, which result in a smaller workforce. Armstrong said many people continue to do the work they’ve always done, but perhaps a bit more of it now.
“It’s not like the police respond or don’t respond,” he said. “It’s, do they respond in five or six minutes?”
Dave Harris, a 12-year city employee who works as a mechanic in the motorpool, is the president of SEIU Local 620 and the vice chairman of the general bargaining unit. The TAP and general SEIU units account for more than 700 city employees.
During a lunch break, Harris chatted with Noozhawk about the unit’s relationship with the city and the negotiation process.
“I think Kristy (Schmidt) is a fair person and we get along with her,” he said. “It’s good that she’s been in that position a long time. There’s a rapport because they know us and where we’re coming from.”
Furlough discussions have to be taken to the union’s membership each year and the current concession negotiations, especially the “me, too clauses” have “caused some mudslinging,” Harris said.
During the 2010 labor negotiations, “me, too clauses” made some concessions contingent on the safety unions taking similar cuts. The police union openly questioned the city’s finances and brought in an economist to look for hidden money. An impasse in negotiations caused a state mediator to get involved before an agreement was finally reached.
The SEIU has negotiated concessions with the city for the last two years and Harris feels that financial information is always presented to the bargaining unit in a transparent way. Through the scandal of the city of Bell’s exorbitant salaries, some people assume rank-and-file city employees are raking in the cash, Harris said.
“The job that I do and the pay that I get is not the pay I’d get on the outside,” he explained. “The benefits make it up.
“Nobody’s gonna retire rich — we’ll probably be just like the middle class now, barely getting by.”