By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council spent most of its energy Tuesday sparring over whether a pension deal with firefighters expected to save the city $59,000 next year went far enough.
But less noticed that same evening was that virtually the entire non-public safety city workforce agreed to concessions that dwarfed the savings served up by the firefighters or their police brethren two weeks earlier.
A coalition of about 850 non-public safety city workers — from maintenance workers to lawyers to sewer plant operators — agreed to another year of unpaid furloughs equal to 3.1 percent of their salaries.
It was the third year that non-public safety employees have accepted furloughs to help the city through its financial challenges.
The continued furloughs are expected to save the city $2.2 million next year, about $1.1 million of which will relieve pressure on the city’s general fund.
City Council members uniformly praised the eight labor groups not only for their continued willingness to take unpaid time off, but for the streamlined way in which they negotiated the concessions.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares said it was “refreshing” to see the groups working together. “We’re in this together and together we’re going to climb our way out of this thing, so thanks,” Olivares said.
Councilman Scott Bartley said it was “stunning” how different the negotiation process was this year compared to last year, when each of the individual labor groups in the coalition negotiated with the city separately and reached deals separately over several months that stretched beyond the budget cycle.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin said the approach the groups took this year “saved the city money, time and angst. You stepped up to the plate. We really appreciate that.”
The labor groups decided it would be better to coordinate their negotiations to show the public that city workers are doing their part to help the city through trying economic times.
Mike Reynolds, president of the Santa Rosa City Employees Association, said after years of news stories about bleak city finances, city workers hoped that their concessions could project a “positive message” that “the City of Santa Rosa is in good shape and well on the road to recovery from the extended downturn in the economy.”
In particular, Reynolds said the discussion about the city’s unfunded pension liability was being “blown way out of proportion.”
“The fact of the matter is the City of Santa Rosa is not in that bad of shape,” Reynolds said.
The city’s unfunded pension liability has soared in recent years to $112 million, but the notion that this puts the city in dire financial straits is a “misconception,” he said.
Reynolds said he is optimistic that an improved economy and continued belt tightening by the city should reduce that future burden.
Forty-one city employees who are not represented by labor groups also offered similar concessions. The executive management team, middle managers and so-called “confidential” employees who are not unionized because they are privy to city labor negotiations all agreed to either furloughs or a combination of furloughs and pension contributions equal to 3.1 percent of salary.
Those changes are expected to save the city $161,000 next year.
The total of expected savings from non-public safety concessions to date is $2.36 million, of which $1.19 million represents city general fund spending.
Getting all those concession nailed down before the budget hearings start is a big deal, said City Manager Kathy Millison.
“I can’t tell you how extremely valuable this is to our budget planning effort,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com.