El Segundo police, fire unions protest planned cuts

At the height of the recession, the El Segundo police and fire unions shelled out millions to help keep the city afloat.

The concessions have continued for seven years — a pay freeze here, furloughs there.

And now, they just want to be left alone.

Dozens of police and fire employees, along with supportive residents, flooded the El Segundo City Council meeting Tuesday night to protest purported cuts forthcoming to the public safety budgets.

Although union contract negotiations are conducted in closed session, union officials have gone public with the details, stating that the city is requesting financial cuts totaling about 11 percent of the police and fire budgets despite projecting a $3 million budget surplus next year.

The city is asking that the police and fire association employees start paying the 9 percent contribution to their pension plan, without providing an adequate pay increase to offset it, union officials said.

“We’re not asking for raises. We just want the city to stop the cuts,” said Geoff Gerny, vice president of the El Segundo Firefighters Association. “We’ve endured seven years of continuous concessions to balance the city’s budget. Now El Segundo is demanding unreasonable cuts. (The council) is on the precipice of turning El Segundo into a stepping-stone city. This demoralizes everyone that works here. It’s setting up El Segundo for failure, for a complete breakdown.”

The unions want tit for tat — if the city is proposing the unions pay 9 percent toward pensions, then they want a 9 percent pay increase to match it, making it a wash, he said.

“All the other cities, because they care about their employees, give them raises to offset them paying for their PERS,” said Officer Brandon Browning, president of the El Segundo Police Officers Association. “That’s all we’re asking for. The city has said, ‘We want you to pay our 9 percent, but we’re only willing to give you a 2 percent increase.’ That’s basically a 7 percent cut.”

He said the city also wants to take away longevity pay for police officers, an automatic bump they receive every five years, among other things.

Meanwhile, he said, the city has told the unions they expect a surplus next year, and that money is not an issue.

“They just feel like we make too much money,” he said. “But all the salary surveys show we’re right in the ballpark, right in the middle.”

Browning acknowledged that the groups are toward the top of the chart in some areas, but said they are average when it comes to total compensation. Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Culver City are among the cities with a higher base salary than El Segundo, he said.

Some of the more striking total compensation numbers for city employees on the yearly charts are often due to employees working overtime to fill the roles of those out on leave or the positions that have been reduced, Gerny said.

He said the Fire Department staffing has been cut by 26 percent since 2008, with 14 firefighters now on duty per day, compared to 19 in 2008.

For police, the department had 70 officers 10 years ago but 58 officers today, with 10 officers threatening to leave the force if the city imposes its proposed contract, Browning said.

During the recession, the Police and Fire departments took the brunt of the hits since they make up the majority of the budget, Gerny said.

“Less than 100 people gave the city millions of dollars. Basically, we wrote them checks to balance the budget,” he said. “Now, they’re $3 million in the black, expenses are dropping, revenues are increasing, and they want to come after us and the four other groups. They’re asking fire for $1 million in cuts.”

Word of the yearlong, tense union negotiations has irked many residents and triggered an online petition, “Save ESPD from budget cuts,” which has garnered 225 signatures and 57 comments since it was posted a week ago.

Dozens of residents showed up at council chambers Tuesday night, holding up blue signs that read, “Stop the Cuts,” pleading with the council to treat the public safety employees fairly or risk losing them to other coastal cities that will pay more.

“Years ago, when the city was struggling and needed help, police and fire helped you get to a number,” resident Lance Giroux said. “Now … there’s a surplus in the budget. Why are you asking the same people to give you money when there’s a surplus? Why double dip on the guys that helped you get (back to a surplus) in the first place? It seems to be a gratuitous shot at public safety.”

Melissa Brankovic, the mother of young children, said she’s scared of what she’s seeing in the city.

“When I see discussions about cuts when we are seeing crime that we never saw before, it is very disheartening,” she said.

“We’re here for our safety. That’s what really stands out in this town,” echoed resident Tara Van Buskirk. “If you cut the pay of our police and fire, we’re going to be like every other city around here. I’ll just move to Torrance. It’s cheaper.”

But not everyone believes the unions are getting the short end of the stick.

Former City Councilman Mike Robbins said, according to the city’s 2014 earnings data, of the 272 employees, 163 of them were paid more than $100,000 last year.

Fifteen employees had total earnings of more than $300,000, 27 with more than $250,000 and 55 with more than $200,000, not including medical and other benefits, he said.

“The unions are campaigning with deceptive scare tactics as usual,” he said. “Cut the wage, cut the fat and cut the union corruption.”

In response to the public comment Tuesday night, Mayor Suzanne Fuentes said the city will post several documents on the city’s website this week, including salary comparison charts, the W2s for all employees for 2012-13, the current consumer price index and the CalPERS pension rate history. The city also will post the offers made to each union and each employee group’s counteroffer.

“We want everyone to see the conversation going back and forth between the council and the associations to make sure everyone is working off the same data,” Fuentes said, adding that a lot of talk about the topic has been circulating around town and on social media.

“I encourage each of you to be educated on the facts of the story,” Councilman Mike Dugan added. “We’ll put the information on the website so you can all be educated and see what’s going on.”

The documents had not been posted on the city’s website by late Wednesday. The city is expected to provide an update of its financial situation and budget projections at a strategic planning session on July 23.