State

Ashton: Hope for 'resolution' in Modesto City Council, police talks

Nobody won June's contract standoff between the Modesto City Council and the Modesto Police Officers Association.

The police kept their raises, temporarily lost eight of their younger members to layoffs and appeared stubborn for insisting on pay increases in the midst of a recession.

The council got blasted with protests from officers and their families and appeared irresponsible for agreeing to give police raises in December 2008, when the depth of the region's economic troubles was more than apparent.

It's a new budget season, and the bottom line for local government in Stanislaus County doesn't look any prettier than a year ago.

Law enforcement unions aren't signaling that they're girding for another fight. Neither are elected representatives.

"This year is this year," said MPOA President Tony Arguelles. "We're hoping we may be able to find a resolution rather than get into a political confrontation."

Expect a repeat of last year's bargaining points as Modesto prepares to cut $8 million from its $107 million general fund. A year ago, the city targeted its layoffs at middle management and asked its police and fire unions to postpone raises.

MPOA wouldn't agree without a commitment from the council that its members wouldn't get pink slips. Council members were unwilling to make that pact because they feared the economy would worsen.

"We never had the idea that we wanted to cut anybody," said former Councilman Will O'Bryant. "We were trying to save jobs. One position can kill a shift when you lay some off."

The Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriff's Association, along with other county unions, last week agreed to a 5 percent wage cut for the next two years. The deputies are preparing to lose about two dozen officers to layoffs. They're not accusing county leaders of slashing public safety unfairly.

"We fully understand the economic system here, and on principle what do we do? We've got to do something to contribute," said Vince Bizzini, the union's president.

He wagered that residents wouldn't have much stomach for a contract fight for deputies making $30 an hour with stellar benefits while the county's unemployment rate nears 20 percent. Not that the officers' salaries are not well-deserved.

"We did our part. Not just us, every county employee," he said about the wage cuts, which are being achieved through furloughs.

Modesto's labor negotiations are just shaping up. Police officers and firefighters have contracts that include raises, and they could be asked to delay them.

"The fact is that our police officers have a raise and our firefighters have a raise available to them. They can take it, it's all legal. But we're asking, and we've been asking, and it's no secret that our finances in the city are just terrible," said Councilman Brad Hawn.

It's not personal, but you can't avoid that feeling in town. It's easy to gripe about bloated government in Sacramento, but not so much when the cop or teacher on the bubble is your neighbor.

"At the end of the day, we're going to balance the budget," Hawn said. "There's no opportunity for us to do anything else."

TAX DAY RUMBLE ... Tea party foot soldiers are holding a rally Thursday to mark the income tax filing deadline. Look for candidates near and far to court the activists.

The tax day tea party's theme is "Generation Debt," and it'll take place from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Modesto Junior College East Campus, 435 College Ave.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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