Council approves budget amid labor controversy |

Council approves budget amid labor controversy

Adam Jensen

The South Lake Tahoe City Council closed a projected $3.4 million shortfall in the city’s 2009-2010 budget on Tuesday, but not before upsetting representatives of several of the city’s seven labor groups.

In addition to an array of cost-cutting measures at the city, each of the groups was expected to reduce salary expenses by 9.23 percent to close the budget gap.

But heading into Tuesday’s City Council meeting, only three of the labor organizations had signed “side letters” to modify their contracts and achieve the salary reductions desired by the Council. The organizations achieved the reductions primarily through two-day-a-month furloughs for the next two years.

But four labor groups, all representing employees at the fire and police departments, had not signed side letters at the time of Tuesday’s meeting. The City Council set Tuesday as a deadline for a budget approval, which was originally expected to be complete by the start of the city’s 2009-2010 fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Despite being unable to reach an agreement with all of the labor groups, the city was able to close the $3.4 million shortfall through the three signed side letters and measures that didn’t require modifications to labor contracts, said City Finance Director Christine Vuletich.

The plan to balance the city’s $101 million budget for this fiscal year includes using nearly $1.5 million of the city’s approximately $10 million reserve fund as well as $584,000 in annual cost reductions.

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Offering early retirement incentives, closing city offices on a scheduled basis, freezing one vacant firefighter position and one vacant police officer position and laying off Engineering Technician Andrew Williams on Jan. 8 are among the annual cost reductions approved by the City Council on Tuesday.

Jon Anderson, president of the South Lake Tahoe Firemen’s Association, said the association did not agree to a side letter because the group felt the city had partaken in “bad faith” negotiations by not adequately considering the cost reductions favored by the group.

One of the central issues for the association was the city’s dismissal of a switch to a “48-96” schedule.

South Lake Tahoe firefighters currently work three 24 hour shifts that are each separated by a day off. Following the end of the third 24 hour shift, firefighters receive four days off.

Under the “48-96” schedule firefighters would work two consecutive 24 hour shifts, followed by four days off.

The “48-96” schedule would reduce sick time expenses by 20 percent, and cut firefighters’ work related travel expenses and vehicle emissions in half, Anderson said.

Although he contended both city labor negotiators and the firemen’s association had agreed the schedule change could be good cost-cutting measure, the city negotiators took the schedule change off the table at the last minute, Anderson said.

“In the end a contradictory cost containment measure was presented to our group that didn’t utilize options that could have saved the city additional moneys and provided consistency with city policies,” Anderson told the Council Tuesday.

The “bad faith” negotiations chilled the association’s willingness to work with the city because it created an “adversarial relationship,” Anderson said.

Members of the South Lake Tahoe Police Officers Association also expressed concerns that city negotiators did not properly address potentially cost-saving schedule changes, said Councilman Bill Crawford.

“I did talk to police officers about this and they too feel there’s been bad faith negotiations coming from the city,” Crawford said.

But City Manger David Jinkens contended the city’s negotiators had made every effort to incorporate the group’s wishes into the required cost-saving measures, but had fallen victim to the Nov. 17 deadline.

“We simply ran out of time,” Jinkens said, “It wasn’t bad faith on their part, it wasn’t bad faith on our part.”

By not reaching an agreement, the fire and police associations irked members of those city labor groups that did sign side letters modifying their existing contracts.

Assistant City Engineer Jim Marino, a representative of the General and Public Works labor group, said he understood the city was in “dire financial straits” but said those labor groups that have signed side letters will the brunt of the budget cuts. Building Official Ron Ticknor, a representative of the city’s Administrative and Confidential Association labor group, agreed.

Marino asked for Andrew Williams to remain on staff until all groups had agreed to side letters and asked for “fair and equitable treatment across all groups.”

The council voted to examine additional cost cutting measures with the groups that did not sign side letters within six months.

Councilman Hal Cole was the only council member present to vote no on the 2009-2010 budget, saying the six month time frame was too long. The needed cuts are likely to grow deeper the longer the groups who did not sign side letters operate under existing contracts, Cole said.

Agreements with labor groups that did not sign a side letter should be reached “within 30 days,” Cole said.

Councilman Bruce Grego was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.