The Los Angeles City Council on Thursday unanimously approved Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s final budget, expanding key services as several members acknowledged that many city workers will likely get a 5.5% raise in eight months.
Councilman Eric Garcetti, casting his first vote since he won the mayor’s race on Tuesday, said the raise is “legally due” to the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents around 18,000 employees. But he said other concessions will be needed to erase a budget shortfall the following year, when new contracts are on the table.
“We can either do salaries or pensions or healthcare,” said Garcetti, who takes office on July 1 and had campaigned on the idea that he would show independence from special interests.
Council members did not vote to actually send city departments the money needed to cover the 5.5% increase, leaving that decision for sometime between now and Jan. 1, when the raise goes into effect. If the council fails to provide the money, those departments could come up short and need to make up the difference by reducing services, said Miguel Santana, the city’s top budget official.
Villaraigosa’s budget called for the restoration of key services, including the addition of 65 firefighters, 533 new vehicles at the Los Angeles Police Department and the trimming of an additional 35,000 trees. When he unveiled his budget last month, Villaraigosa called on both mayoral candidates -- Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel -- to renegotiate the 5.5% raise, which is part of a 2011 agreement backed by the mayor and council.
Santana has warned that the city budget's deficit for 2014-15 will grow by $108 million unless the city eliminates the 5.5% pay hike, addresses police overtime and secures new concessions from city workers on healthcare benefits.
Council members say union leaders cannot be forced back to the table on the raise. And labor leaders have shown no intention of giving ground, saying the city is “no longer teetering on the precipice of insolvency.”
“There is no pressing need to reopen our contract,” said Ian Thompson, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 10,000 workers. “We'll be back at the table next summer. In the meantime, city workers will keep delivering quality public services.”
Councilman Bernard C. Parks voiced doubts on getting union leaders to reverse course. "With no leverage, I don't believe they're going to give that [raise] up."
Villaraigosa's budget placed the money for the 5.5% raise into a special fund for “economic uncertainties,” sending a clear signal that awarding the pay increase would not affect other city services or the reserve fund for emergencies. That has made it a tempting plum for labor leaders and lawmakers alike.
Council President Herb Wesson said Garcetti, who won without the help of the city’s major employee groups, is in a position where he might be successful in wringing some savings out of the workforce in coming months.
“We do have a new mayor coming in that is positioned to negotiate,” Wesson said. “But with that said, these are agreements. Contracts. So if we fail in negotiations, we would have to pay” the 5.5%.
One San Fernando Valley business leader expressed disappointment at that possibility.
“I don’t believe that the city’s house is in fiscal position to be able to afford that,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. and a key Greuel supporter. “As with most companies, if you can’t afford to buy things or give raises, you don’t.”