Matthai Kuruvila, 7/14/10
Oakland laid off 80 police officers Tuesday after negotiations between city officials and union leaders failed on one simple matter: job security.
The police union demanded that the city guarantee that its officers would not be laid off for three years in exchange for giving up some pension benefits that would have eased the city’s budget problems.
City leaders, however, said it would have been irresponsible of them to agree to protect police jobs for more than one year because the city’s budget problems are likely to worsen.
The layoffs are believed to be the first for Oakland police officers in at least three decades. Oakland officers warned that the layoffs would imperil the city, which has California’s highest violent crime rate.
“Every time you lay us off, there’s a gun to the citizen’s head as well,” said Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association.
He compared the slaying of four officers in the line of duty in March 2009 to Tuesday’s layoffs, saying the 80 were released “not by the hand of a gun, but by the hand of a pen.”
Oakland Council President Jane Brunner said the city had little choice but to order the layoffs.
“We all agree we need more police, but we can’t afford it,” she said.
The police had agreed to several council requests: paying 9 percent of their salaries into their pension plans and agreeing to a later retirement age for new hires. But in return, they wanted a three-year moratorium on officer layoffs.
The council counter-offered by saying it would agree to a one-year moratorium. But the union said no. The union also rejected an offer from the city for smaller pension contributions with the one-year moratorium.
The city has already eliminated the $42 million deficit it faced for the year that began July 1. Cuts included the police layoffs. The city now has a $407 million budget.
Next year, the deficit is projected at roughly $50 million.
With 75 percent of the budget devoted to police and fire and 10 percent to debt service, the city has no wiggle room, council members said.
In that context, a layoff moratorium just for police “would be irresponsible,” Brunner said.
Union leaders said they have already offered concessions for two years straight even though they have a closed contract. Still, they were willing to negotiate again this year.
“We could have sat on our hands,” said Rocky Lucia, the union’s attorney.
Something in return
Officers who lost their jobs Tuesday said the union could not sacrifice without getting anything back in return.
“My idea of negotiating is giving and getting,” said Chris Peters, who was laid off Tuesday after having worked for nearly two years in North Oakland. “We’re giving, but we’re not getting anything back.”
Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said other city workers pay at least 9 percent into their pensions and he wanted police to do the same.
Officers currently pay nothing into their pensions. They are allowed to retire at age 50 and collect 3 percent of their salary for every year of service.
“I’m disappointed because I think it’s just fair for them to pay their contribution,” De La Fuente said. “They put the interest of a few at the expense of the people who are going to be laid off. It’s putting us and other cities out of business.”
De La Fuente did not view the pension contribution as a pay cut.
“It’s a very generous pension,” he said. “The least you can do is protect it and make sure it stays viable. … It’s something that very few people in this city and state have.”
Going to voters
The layoffs leave the department with 695 officers. Unless the city and union come to a new agreement, the only hope for restoring the city’s police force lies with voters.
Brunner and union officials talked about working hand-in-hand to convince voters to approve two ballot measures, neither of which has yet been written. The measures – one of which would ask for a parcel tax of about $360 per home to raise an estimated $50 million – could allow the city to rehire the laid-off officers.
A parcel tax would require a two-thirds majority of voters, a threshold that many believe would require the unanimous support of the council and a lack of organized opposition.
Despite the lack of success in negotiations, Lucia, the union attorney, said there was no antagonism toward the council. And the ballot measures are key to restoring the 80 jobs.
“We’re not going to let these guys go without a fight,” Lucia said.
But they won’t be joined in the campaign by De La Fuente, who reiterated what he has been saying for months.
Unless police contribute 9 percent to their pensions, he said, “I will not support the ballot measure.”