By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rohnert Park public safety officers have ramped up their offensive against City Hall’s exploration of outsourcing law enforcement and fire services.
In a sign of the stakes, the city public safety officers union has taken the provocative step of revealing in a flyer mailed to residents what it says are details from ongoing contract talks in order to condemn the proposal.
It also slams the proposal to contract police services to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office by saying it would betray the intent of voters who in 2010 passed a half-percent sales tax meant to preserve city services.
“We were told that that Measure E funds would be used to maintain Rohnert Park’s public safety services,” Dale Utecht, president of the Rohnert Park Public Safety Officers Association, said in the letter.
“Yet this proposal would give those funds to the council to help balance the county’s budget. That’s not right,” Utecht says.
Utecht’s letter claims that the POA, as the union is known, offered $1.6 million in contract concessions to the city, including cuts in pay and pension benefits, which are among the city’s biggest financial burdens.
That offer was rejected, Utecht wrote, and then the city began to investigate the idea of contracting with the Sheriff’s Office and the Rancho Cotate Fire Protection District
Contract negotiations are continuing and it is rare — and generally considered improper — for one side to to publicly discuss the content of such talks.
City Manager Gabe Gonzalez, a member of the city’s negotiating team, said he would not discuss the contract talks or if the union offered the concessions it described, saying he did not want to risk violating labor law.
“The city is not going to negotiate in good faith in the public arena as the POA has obviously done in their flyer,” he said.
Utecht and other POA representatives did not return calls or emails Wednesday for comment.
But City Council members criticized union leaders for publicly campaigning against a proposal that is only under discussion, and, especially, for revealing details from the contract negotiations.
Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte, who won office with POA support in 2008, said the mailing was a maneuver better suited to an election season.
“I’m confused why they’re running a political campaign; it’s a budgetary issue, it’s black and white, it’s numbers,” she said.
“We approved (on Tuesday) a budget with a $2 million deficit and we are asking for help,” Belforte said. “This is not an us-versus-them. This is us trying to work with them through negotiations.”
Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who often has clashed with the public safety officers union, said “I don’t appreciate it. I am extremely unhappy with their taking this approach when we are negotiating in a very serious matter.”
He added: “It’s a classic POA tactic.”
The Sheriff’s Office proposal was solicited by Gonzalez, who said all options to close the deficit had to be examined. Public safety — a single department that provides police and fire services — represents $15.5 million of the city’s $25 million general fund budget.
A cost analysis that the City Council reviewed this month said the city could save up to $2.5 million by going outside for police and fire services. Police services are the largest part of the public safety budget, about $12 million.
The POA, in its flyer, states that the proposal would provide a lower level of service to the city or cost more.
The Sheriff’s Office proposal offers three service levels. The flyer says that the Public Safety Department would provide for $8.5 million the equivalent service outlined in the Sheriff’s most expensive proposal, which would cost $11.3 million.