City manager: Public safety forces proposed tax hike
Posted: 06/30/2010 12:48:22 PM MDT
EL PASO - City Manager Joyce Wilson says raises for police officers and firefighters, along with the cost of their pension fund, are largely responsible for her proposing a 5 percent increase in the city tax rate. The next city budget year starts Sept. 1. Wilson says it is important to her administration to obtain concessions from police officers and firefighters. She said the growing city must find money to hire more public safety employees and to train them. Firefighters likely will strike city before the existing deal expires Aug. 31. But police are not interested in giving up pay increases. "We're not going to open up the wages again," Sgt. Ron Martin, president of the police union, said today. In presenting a proposed budget to the City Council today, Wilson advocated an increase in the tax rate from 0.633 cents to 0.666 cents per $100 of assessed property value. For the owner of a $150,000 house, that would be an increase of about $50 a year. Wilson also wants the city to increase base ambulance fees by $100, to $650, and increase the residential garbage fee from $1.50 to $2.50. At $318 million, the proposed general fund budget would be $5.9 million greater than for this year. The city's overall budget includes entities such as the international bridges, Sun Metro buses and the airport, which are largely funded through fees and federal grants. Wilson proposes an increase in that budget of $22 million, to $695 million. City officials are proposing millions in cuts in other areas. But, Wilson said, police and fire contracts require the city to pay $5.8 million more to cover raises that be more than 8 percent in each of four consecutive years. "We can't sustain 8 percent inflation in the single-largest agency in the city," Wilson said of the police department. Martin disputed the figure, saying not all police officers were getting 8 percent increases. Her administration negotiated the contracts with the fire and police unions. Wilson is proposing pay freezes for most civilian employees for the second straight year. The exception is longevity raises for employees who start their fifth year of work during the budget year. After cutting city budgets in two successive years, Wilson proposes streamlining city administration by merging several departments and cutting 15 jobs. But the city manager proposes adding 52 workers, including 22 to work with children in the parks department. Wilson proposes spending more than $1 million next year to train more police and firefighters. Police and fire pensions also are a big expense, Wilson said. In 2007, the city agreed to issue bonds to pay half of $400 million the fund is obliged to pay, but did not have the money to cover. The city will have to begin paying an additional $4 million this year to cover $110 million in pension bonds it issued last year. Of the 3.3 cents Wilson proposes to add to the city tax rate, 1.3 cents is for debt repayment. And of the city's $550 million in debt, about 36 percent is going to make solvent the police and fire pension fund, Wilson said. The El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association and the El Paso Association of Firefighters both agreed in 2009 to postpone 3 percent cost-of-living increases for four months. "The members overwhelmingly agreed to help the city," said Lt. Joe Tellez, president of the firefighters' union. "We're always sensitive to the needs of the taxpayers and the city." Last year's agreements did not affect 5 percent "step increases" public safety officers received under their contracts. Tellez said that in his 20 years on the department, new firefighters are paid meagerly, and they hire on with the promise of 10 annual step increases. The firefighters' union is negotiating a new contract with the city this year and Wilson said she hopes to get concessions on pay - perhaps by tying cost-of-living increases to consumer prices. Tellez would not say what his union might agree to. "I don't want to negotiate in the media," he said. To get the delay in a cost-of living raise from police, the city agreed last year to extend that contract for two years, to 2014. Wilson says she now regrets the move, which locked in raises for a department that already absorbs a third of the city's general-fund budget. "They got a lot for not very much," Wilson said. But Martin said his union agreed to $2 million in concessions when city officials said they needed it. He doubted the city would agree to reopen the contract and give police raises in times of prosperity. "The citizens of El Paso have to pick what services they want and what they're willing to pay for," Martin said. Wilson also hopes that the police union will agree to concessions such as further delays in scheduled raises. She pointed to cities such as Dallas and Albuquerque, where city officials are seeking to cut pay for public-safety officers. She was in communication with the police union as recently as Wednesday morning, but the union said it wouldn't give up pay, Martin said. She said the city could furlough police and firefighters without pay. Phoenix is proposing two weeks of furloughs for its public safety workers in the coming year. Or the city council could simply not fund police raises - a move that likely would end in a court fight or arbitration, Wilson said. Wilson said she is trying to find savings without compromising public safety. "It's the core service we provide to keep the city safe," she said.
Marty Schladen can be reached at email@example.com; 546-6127.