Merced public safety workers reach deal

Unions give up pay to retain service level

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJuly 11, 2012 

— It's not easy to find a government worker who hasn't come to know and fear the phrase "budget cuts." Public employee unions for the city of Merced know the situation all too well.

The city of Merced is trying to finalize contracts with its firefighters, police and sergeants associations, asking public safety unions to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in concessions.

City officials and union representatives seem to have hammered out many of the contract details over recent days.

"The employees stepped up to the plate and said, 'We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,' " said John Bramble, the city manager. "I think they did a tremendous job."

The Merced City Firefighters Association has a conceptual agreement with the city that would run through 2013 and include $760,000 in concessions, said Chad Englert, the group's president.

That's preferable to the city's original request for a one-year contract with about $580,000 in concessions, but the cuts could weaken the department's ability to retain staff, Englert said.

"Obviously when you have a signed contract like that, it will affect morale. At the same time, we're professional firefighters, and it will not affect the service we give our community," Englert said.

There will be no layoffs, but all 56 Merced city firefighters are expected to take a 5.5 percent pay cut, he said.

The Merced Police Officers Association also has reached a conceptual agreement that would run through 2013 and result in roughly an 11 percent cut to pay and benefits combined for all 84 employees, said Joe Deliman, association president.

"It's frustrating," he said. "It's not something we wanted to do. We also feel the city could have done better about bringing in business so these concessions weren't needed."

The Merced Association of Police Sergeants could not be reached Wednesday for comment on its contract negotiations.

The concessions requests are part of an ongoing city plan to limit the spending of general fund reserves, which have dwindled dramatically over recent years.

"The No. 1 issue was we needed to get to a place where we're sustainable for the next five years," Bramble said. "The concessions were very important for this year for not having to do any more budgets cuts or layoffs."

Using the concessions, city officials hoped to keep reserve spending under $200,000. Last fiscal year, the city spent $2 million of the general fund reserves.

The reserves stand at about $6.6 million. Five years ago, the city's general fund reserves amounted to about $17 million.

Without concessions, city officials expressed concern that reserves could dip below the minimum recommended level for a municipality the size of Merced as prescribed by the Government Finance Officers Association.

The Merced City Council is expected to vote on ratifying the public safety union contracts Aug. 6.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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