- by Dave Maass
The theme driving two local campaigns—City Councilmember Carl DeMaio's bid for mayor and Prop. B, the ballot measure that seeks to overhaul the city’s retirement system—is that labor unions are the taxpayers' adversaries, unwilling to budge on pensions or compensation.
But the San Diego Police Officers Association (POA) says that a two-year contract proposal it brought to Mayor Jerry Sanders earlier this year—one that the union says would have resulted in $3 million in savings for the city over those two years and helped solve a growing officer-retention problem—was shelved partly, union leaders believe, so as not to undermine the campaign narrative of union intransigence.
The underlying message, says POA President Brian Marvel, was: "It's a very political topic you guys are discussing, and there’s no desire to upset the apple cart for the June 5 election."
The San Diego Police Department is losing officers faster than it can replace them. According to the city's Independent Budget Analyst, since 2008, 708 officers have left while only 576 have joined. Compensation studies by both the city and the POA put San Diego near the bottom compared with other Southern California law-enforcement agencies and last when compared with police departments in L.A., San Francisco and San Jose. POA Vice President Jeff Jordon says officers are being lured to other cities, or the private sector, for better pay.
"We have to be realistic and say, 'Hey, listen, with our members being unable to meet their bills, with our members going to other departments, would we, as an association, be willing to take less money from our pensions?'"
Prop. B, among other things, seeks to put all new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan and freeze all employees' "pensionable" pay—the portion of a worker's salary used to calculate retirement benefits—through June 30, 2018.
Police officers are exempt from the 401(k) switch because Sanders, who helped craft the ballot measure, was concerned that including them would make recruitment and retention more difficult.
But the POA's OK with a pensionable-pay cap—currently, officers pay between 10 and 19 percent of their salary into the pension system. While that required contribution can't be reduced as a way for them to pocket more of their salary, the amount the contribution’s based on can. Many officers receive "specialty pay"—additional pay for assignments like SWAT or motorcycle duty—on top of their normal salary. Not including specialty pay in pension calculations means more money in an officer's paycheck.
"In the end, it means you would take home less of a pension," Jordon says, "but we were saying, 'Listen, we'll do that in order to make ourselves more competitive.'"
According to an analysis by the San Diego City Employees' Retirement System, this switch would save the city $57 million over five years. The POA proposal asked that most of that savings be directed at retention measures—like increased healthcare coverage, new gym equipment at police stations and a boost to the allowance an officer gets to buy new uniforms.
Because the savings from the pensionable-pay cap wouldn’t kick in until next year, the POA suggested eliminating holiday pay for the fiscal year starting July 1.
"What we proposed was a zero-dollar expense to the city," Marvel says. And, the city would still come out ahead by $3 million over the contract's two years.
Marvel says the response from the Mayor's office was no two-year labor contracts.
"When [Sanders] came in, he had to deal with a lot of contracts…. He just wanted one-year deals with everybody so the new, incoming mayor would have a clean slate in dealing with all the bargaining units," Marvel says, referring to the city's six employee unions.
The Mayor's office declined to comment for this story.
Marvel says that while he understands the mayor's position, officer-retention problems loom. It costs the city more than $100,000 to train a new recruit, and that money's lost if the recruit is hired elsewhere.
"Our position, of course, is, 'You know what, you have an issue with the police department. We're bringing stuff to the table; we're bringing reform.'"
Even if the mayor had supported the proposal, it would require six of the eight City Council votes to pass.
"We weren't getting the feeling that the mayor was going to expend any political capital on a multi-year deal with the POA," Marvel says. "Everybody talks about reform, but, apparently, if you actually want to do reform and you’re a union, you’re not going to have success because it doesn't jibe with certain individuals on the council."
City Council President Tony Young says it would be speculative to say the mayor's decision not to support the proposal was political.
"But I do think [the POA's proposal is] definitely something worth considering, especially as we move forward toward this new paradigm as it comes to pay and pensionable pay."
However, the POA worries that if Prop. B passes and is implemented—a big "if" since it's being challenged in court—the city will be unable to make future changes to retirement benefits. Prop. B eliminates the section of the city charter—Section 143.1—that allows for changes to pension benefits.
"POA attorneys have said, once you eliminate that portion of the city charter, it immediately locks the pension system in place where nothing can be changed," Jordon says.
Mark Hovey, chief financial officer for SDCERS, said in an email that while he can’t comment on the POA's proposal, Prop. B could complicate things.
"The vote requirement in [Section] 143.1 is the current mechanism that allows the city, after negotiating with the unions, to eliminate or modify vested benefits. If the 143.1 vote requirement is eliminated, that mechanism no longer exists."
Correction: An earlier version of the story said police are exempt from the pensionable-pay freeze. They're only exempt from the 401(k) switch. We apologize for the error.