By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On a 4-3 vote Tuesday night, Santa Rosa’s City Council approved a labor agreement with its 121
firefighters requiring them to pay more toward their pensions and cutting benefits for future hires.
During a council meeting marked by nasty exchanges — a councilman refused at one point to apologize to another — the city’s actuarial consultant said the changes will save $788,000 next year. Savings are projected to reach about $1.7 million a year in a decade, he said.
The development is a highwater mark after several years of at-times bitter political argument and negotiation between the city and its various employee unions.
The four council members who voted to adopt the agreement said the city is indebted to the firefighters for amending their contract.
“Our firefighters have been under no obligation to meet with us but they did,” Mayor Ernesto Olivares said. He added, though, that firefighters should have been asked to make changes before now.
Firefighters said they have made a number of moves in recent years to help the city with its budget crises, including deferring pay raises.
“The firefighters took one more step tonight to assist the long-term health of our city,” said Fire Capt. Jack Thomas, president of Santa Rosa Firefighters IAFF Local 1401.
The impact for the city comes largely in cuts, which include $26.4 million a year toward retirement benefits for its 1,200 employees.
The deal does nothing to reduce the city’s unfunded $112 million pension liability — the amount that it owes its current and future retirees.
“What it does is it keeps it from growing quite as fast,” said John Bartel, the actuarial consultant.
Councilman Scott Bartley said: “It will help change the distant future and make it better for future generations.”
That wasn’t enough for Councilwoman Susan Gorin, who — with council members Gary Wysocky and Marsha Vas Dupre — opposed the agreement.
“We need to go further,” Gorin said, saying benefits for future hires should be cut more.
Wysocky, who clashed several times with colleagues at the dais, said the agreement put off a reckoning that needed to be made now through more extensive cuts. “To me, it’s as un-American as it gets because we’re passing it down to the next generation,” he said.
Employee relations manager Chris Sliz said that law and regulations prevent altering retirement plans of vested employees.
The savings achieved Tuesday will allow the city to chip away at its deficit or fund other programs. The immediate savings are equal to about 21 percent of the city’s $3.9 million general fund deficit.
“The amount the city is having to pay is crowding out” the city’s ability to pay “for other services,” said City Manager Kathy Millison.
The deal follows a path set by many cities. It establishes lower benefits for new workers and it raises the amount workers pay toward their pensions.
– Firefighters hired after July 1, 2012, must work to age 55 before being able to retire with up to 90 percent of their salary. Now, like most public safety workers, if they’ve worked for 30 years, firefighters can retire at 50 with that benefit.
– Future employees also will have to pay their full share of retirement premiums — equivalent to 9 percent of their salaries. Now, the city pays the entire employee share.
– The deal creates a less severe requirement for current firefighters. They will have to pay 5 percent of their salary toward pensions. Thomas said that he expects that current firefighters eventually will pay more.
– Firefighters received a deferred 3.5 percent raise in July 2011. This July, they are to receive another 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase, deferred from last year. That means after paying into their retirement, they will be getting a 1 percent raise.
– Also, pensions for new hires will be calculated differently. Instead of being based on the single highest annual salary — usually the final year of employment — their pensions will be based on the average of their final three years of service.
Known as “anti-spiking,” this prevents hikes in pensions than can occur through final year increases in pay, vacation payouts and other specialty pay.
The discussion grew heated at times. Councilman John Sawyer demanded that Wysocky apologize for saying his colleagues were, as Sawyer put it, “pooh-poohing” the unfunded liability. “I’m asking you for an apology or for you to explain your comment,” Sawyer said.
“I think you need to get a thicker skin,” Wysocky said.