Posted on Thu, Dec. 04, 2003

Richmond job, service cuts decried


RICHMOND- Police, firefighter and service union members turned out in force to berate the City Council on Tuesday night for severing jobs and services to bridge a $10 million deficit, warning the cuts will hobble the community -- and lamenting their voices are not being heard.

"We want input on the kind of cuts being made," said Jim Russey, president of the firefighters union. "Richmond spends more on its administration than on public safety."

At issue is a yawning budget gap created, according to City Manager Isiah Turner, by skyrocketing health care and pension costs. Turner has been meeting with the city's six employee bargaining units to request they take on some of those costs.

But the talks did not bear fruit, and the council approved sweeping cuts slated to go into effect in January. More than 100 employees were handed pink slips. Library hours will narrow to a few. Although officials had weighed shuttering the Point Richmond fire station, they instead opted to rotate closures of four other fire stations one day a week.

"I think a lot of what is going on is posturing," Councilman Tom Butt said. "(Public safety unions) are going to end up giving some things up, but they won't do it until the last minute. In the meantime, they're playing to public opinion."

Although numerous speakers blasted the city for paying its administrators more than its public safety personnel, member of the fire and police departments pull down some of the city's highest salaries, according to a roster of the 100 highest-paid employees compiled by the finance department.

A retiring police captain who took home more than $281,000 last year in pay and cashed out time off -- $100,000 more than the city manager's pay -- headed up the list. The salaries added up to $12.5 million last year.

The roster was compiled using W-2 tax forms. The amounts reflect only cash paid, including hefty amounts of overtime pay for rank-and-file, vacation and retirement lump-sum payouts, but not benefits.

With only two exceptions, the port director and director of the Richmond Public Housing Authority, the salaries are paid from the city's $94 million General Fund.

Ranking just under the city manager, at more than $175,000, is a fire captain, followed by a battalion chief at $168,000. At $132,000 a police officer earned only $50 less than an assistant city manager.

Of the top 100, 45 worked for the police department and 33 for the fire department.

"If they don't cost share we've got to implement this plan," Councilman Gary Bell said. "What's disappointing is we don't engage with the people who are being effected: the community, the employees. It was a top-down thing, and that's what these people are feeling. I think that's the message we are missing."

In fact, some union rank-and-file members said while their representatives may not budge in negotiations with city management, they are willing to hash out a solution.

"If you talk to us, the people in the trenches, you'll realize we are willing to give things up, to sharpen our pencils and tighten our belts," said SEIU member Linda McPhee.

Finance department reports show revenues are missing the marks projected in the $94 million 2003-2004 budget. Sales taxes, projected to remain flat, have plunged $500,000. The utility users tax, which voters raised through Measure J in November 2002, is generating a fraction of what was anticipated.

In addition, ChevronTexaco has refused to ante up its projected utility user tax increase, roughly $1.2 million, and there have been delays in selling city-owned property for development, Butt said.

Richmond is facing soaring co-payments to CalPERS, the state's pension and benefit agency. The city, which paid $600,000 to CalPERS in the 2002-03 fiscal year, must hand over $7.6 million this fiscal year, and faces a bill for $13 million in the 2004-05 fiscal year.

In 2002, the city granted its police a retirement benefit that allows officers to quit at age 50 and continue to receive a hefty portion of their top earnings from CalPERS. Other city workers were granted a lesser retirement package starting at age 55.

The benefits prompted many eligible employees to bolt, racking up costs of $6 million in the first year. Overtime costs escalated as departments struggled to bridge the personnel gap.

"When the City Council adopted new pension plans last year, we had an opportunity to build in inflationary controls with cost sharing, but we didn't," Butt said.

Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or

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