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Binding arbitration re-visited? 

During the San Luis Obispo City Council’s Feb. 15 meeting, Councilman Andrew Carter proposed putting binding arbitration and a two-tier benefit system for city employees on the June ballot.

Perhaps more surprising, Carter had enough support to move his proposal forward. Council members Dan Carpenter and Kathy Smith voted to put the item on a future agenda, a necessary step to obtain a vote on the issue.

City staffers were caught off-guard by the step and requested a special meeting to discuss the subject. The City Council is scheduled to make a final decision at a special meeting on Feb. 22.

Carter suggested putting the issue to a vote for a proposed June special election alongside a state-proposed four-year tax extension.

City voters approved binding arbitration for firefighters and police in 2000. Under the practice, a mediator looks at employer and employee positions and determines the outcome.

In 2008, the police union received a 30-percent raise from the mediator, which cost the city $5.4 million that fiscal year, with ongoing costs of $3 million per year.

Two years ago, the council considered putting binding arbitration on the ballot, but ran into overwhelming union opposition. Angry union members—many of whom came from outside the city—flooded the council chambers.

In the face of that pressure, the council voted 4-1 to reject the motion. Since then, however, the city’s finances are heading for the toilet with yearly $3 million structural deficits reaching into the foreseeable future.

Mayor Jan Marx and Councilman John Ashbaugh spoke out against Carter’s motion. Marx said she preferred to have the city concentrate on the upcoming budget rather than initiate a divisive struggle over binding arbitration.

“We’re disappointed,” SLO Firefighter’s Association President Erik Baskin told New Times. “We feel a protracted political battle over a fair negotiating practice during a time where we all are working to solve the city’s economic problems will not benefit the community.”

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