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Results of binding arbitration heard by city council 

“This sucks,” was the response from a visibly disheartened Councilmember Paul Brown at a meeting about the recent binding arbitration decision for the contract between the city and the San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association (SLOPOA). His response clearly echoed that of his fellow council members, as well as others present during the July 15 meeting.

Dozens of association members, clad in bright blue union t-shirts, lined the walls of the council chamber to show support for the decision. Community members concerned about the impact the decision will have on the city’s budget were also present.

“I’m not happy with the result, but we must work together and sort things out,” said Councilmember Andrew Carter, who denounced the binding arbitration process.

The decision reached by an Oakland-based arbitrator will result in an estimated $4.4 million in added costs to the 2008-09 fiscal budget, and $1.8 annually thereafter, according to city staff. Short-term solutions for coping with the increase include a municipal “hiring chill” and the deferment of such projects as neighborhood patrolling and graffiti abatement. Long-term solutions have not yet been determined.

SLO Chamber of Commerce President David Garth called the decision and its implications “a major turning point in our city.

“I hope the council will realize what a mistake binding arbitration was,” he said.

Association representatives defended the decision as fair and balanced, and they criticized the council for not warning of the potential impacts during the arbitration process.

“The city was represented in those proceedings. If there was a problem with the process, it was the council’s failure to analyze the consequences,” she said.

Over four years, SLOPOA members can expect a 30 percent salary increase for sworn members and 37 percent for non-sworn members, retroactive to January 2006. Top salaries for police officers by January 2009 will be $102,596, and top salaries for dispatchers will be $76,778. The increase will leapfrog the SLOPOA into the highest paid municipal group in the city. Many expressed concern for the effect it will have on city employee morale, and the council predicted other municipal groups will want similar pay increases when their contracts expire in spring 2009.

Discussed several times was the impact the increase would have on Measure Y priorities, which include increasing neighborhood patrols, road improvements, and senior citizen services, funded from the half-cent sales tax measure passed in November 2006. Staff stated it was simply too soon to tell, but council members acknowledged that many of those priorities would be put on hold.

“This will take a significant cut out of Measure Y and crimp the things we need to do in the long run,” said Mayor David Romero.

The binding arbitration clause voted into the city’s charter in 2000 strips the council of any authority to dispute the decision. SLOPOA members argue that binding arbitration is needed because police and fire unions cannot strike. Council members argue that the clause allows significant fiscal-related decisions to be made by an arbitrator who has no responsibility to city taxpayers. Due to the enormity of the decision’s impact on the city’s budget, binding arbitration has come under severe scrutiny.

“We have a fiscal responsibility to the city,” said Councilmember Christine Mulholland. “This binding arbitration clause has pulled the rug out from under us. It’s a damn lousy process, and no way to run a city,” she said.

Staff will again report to the council regarding further short-term solutions on September 16. Long-term solutions will be presented to the council as part of the 2009-11 financial plan in December.

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