Redondo Beach’s police and firefighters can’t come to terms with City Hall on a labor agreement
by David Mendez
When Officer Latoya Harris stepped up to the lectern at the Redondo Beach City Council Chambers, she didn’t quite look like herself. She wasn’t in her Redondo Beach Police uniform, wearing her badge, her duty belt or carrying her weapon. She was in her other uniform, as a mother advocating for the two young boys at her side.
“I’m grateful for the healthcare that I receive, and I realize that not everyone can afford the kind of healthcare that first responders need, but I think I do a pretty good job earning it,” Harris said. “But we haven’t had an increase in our healthcare allowance in 20 years. I have to purchase 2019 healthcare with 1990s dollars, I have to come out of pocket by several hundred dollars a month to pay for it.”
Redondo Beach’s police officers and firefighters have been working under an expired contract for more than eight months, and though they believe their terms — a Cost of Living adjustment and increased insurance contributions by the city — are reasonable, they say City leadership isn’t budging.
The City is bearish on its financial projections, worrying that a potential economic downturn could depress modest annual revenue increases. But public safety associations think that the city’s financial policies could force its peace officers to look for greener pastures.
The Redondo Beach Firefighters Association, led by Firefighter Greg Allen, is still in negotiations and thus keeping quiet on its stipulations. But after nine months of negotiations, the Redondo Beach Police Officers’ Association has given the city its last, best and final offer. Further, RBPOA has issued a survey of its membership, declaring that of 77 members surveyed, nearly two-thirds have considered leaving RBPD.
“Our guys are among the lowest paid in the South Bay by a lot,” said RBPOA President Robert Carlborg, whose bargaining unit includes police officers and sergeants. He said that the POA’s final offer includes a 3 percent cost of living adjustment, and a $300 increase in insurance contributions by the city.
“That puts us equal with Torrance, but less than Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Hawthorne,” Carlborg said. “We’re not about being unreasonable.”
According to Mike Sergeant, the owner of Advanced Survey Consulting, that’s a more than reasonable request.
“A 3 percent COLA is low — if that’s what they’re asking for, the Council should be lucky, because they need a 5 to 8 percent increase just to be average, not even well-paid.”
According to Sergeant’s survey of 11 South Bay and Westside cities, Redondo Beach police officers at the top of their pay scale rank tenth in base pay ($7,156/mo), above only Hawthorne PD ($6,451/mo). In total compensation, Redondo ranks 8 out of 11, both in California’s classic Public Employee Retirement System and the newer Public Employee Pension Reform Act.
In any case, Redondo Beach police officers are paid well below average compared to their neighbors — an issue that’s causing nearly two-thirds of RBPD’s surveyed membership to consider working elsewhere.
“It means they’re not being fairly compensated to do the work that they do. It’s not reasonable for the area that they work in,” Sergeant said. “Redondo isn’t paying according to its revenue intake.”
According to the city’s audited financial reports for the 2017-18 Fiscal Year, Redondo Beach spent $57.45 million on public safety, out of its $108.45 million in total expenditures — about 53 percent.
That’s not to say that the city’s in a bad financial position, however. An independent review of the city’s finances, commissioned from Harvey M. Rose Associates by RBPOA, shows that the city is in “fair financial condition” as of its FY 2016-17 budget.
But both RBPOA’s Carlborg and RBFA’s Allen believe that the city’s internal service funds are out of whack, noting that the city had approximately $8.7 million in three internal service funds: Vehicle Replacement, Emergency Communications and Major Facilities Repair. Those are internal accounts that help city departments pay for central support services.
In FY 16-17, the Vehicle Replacement Fund was set at $6.47 million. The Rose report calculated the fund’s annual expenses at $1.66 million, as the city regularly replaces city vehicles, including police, fire and public works cars and trucks, on a set schedule.
“My question is, if you knew you had a $2 million budget to spend money, how much would you put in that account? Maybe $2.5 million — say a fire engine gets too close to a fire, and you buy a new engine — but the city keeps putting more and more in,” Carlborg said.
“It’s a valid point they bring up,” said Councilman Todd Loewenstein. “Do we need to be squirreling away that much money, or is it something that we need to look at in terms of freeing up money for the General Fund on whatever we need — pay, benefits, roads, parks, or anything else.”
Internal Service Funds — including the vehicle replacement fund, and the city’s vehicle replacement plan — have been a bug in Loewenstein’s ear since he joined the Council in 2017. He’s glad that others are looking into the program.
“Every dollar is precious. I think it’s good that they challenge us and ask us if this is really a necessity to use these,” Loewenstein said. “It forces us to have a second look; without that oversight, we’re not doing our jobs well.”
City Manager Joe Hoefgen defended the funds as longstanding city practices. “We look at each vehicle and its useful life, we anticipate when it will be replaced and depreciate it appropriately. I don’t see that we’re over-budgeted,” Hoefgen said. “We, each year, have a series of financial principles that are presented to the Council. They’re reviewed and adopted as part of the budget.”
Councilwoman Laura Emdee said that she expects to discuss internal service funds during the next round of budget talks, which may come as early as this month’s midyear budget adjustments.
“I plan on bringing it up not to take away from the funds, but maybe to not replenish them at such a high rate,” Emdee said.
Emdee’s not opposed to offering police and fire raises, she said.
“I think they need a COLA raise; things are getting more expensive, and we need to raise everyone, not just them. But the reality is, revenues equal services in the city,” Emdee said. “It’s a balancing act. What else can we be doing to make things less expensive for us?”
City revenues have grown in recent years, after a glut of hotels opened up on Marine Avenue and around King Harbor. But Hoefgen’s 2018-19 budget message to the City Council warned of limited growth, noting that no new revenue-producing developments were planned for the next year; that concern should reasonably continue until the South Bay Galleria redevelopment comes on-line in five years, at the earliest.
Until then, the City is stuck attempting to find a balance between its revenue worries and keeping its labor force — police and fire included — well-paid.
One question is, how well-paid should they be? According to Transparent California’s public employee benefits records, police officers and firefighters were 21 of 25 Redondo’s highest-compensated employees in 2017. That same year, four firefighters made more than $100,000 in overtime pay, with one collecting more than $200,000.
But 2017 also saw the highest amount of responses for both police and fire over the previous six years. Police issued 7,189 arrests and citations in 2017, and Fire responded to 7,132 emergencies — medical rescues, fires, and other calls.
The city has previously floated plans to brown-out fire equipment, shutting down vehicles for a day, rather than calling in more manpower, to cut down on overtime in case of firefighters calling out, but that was discarded.
Police and fire both received percentage pay increases in FY 2016-17, as well. The 2016 memorandum of understanding between the City and RBPOA included a 14 percent pay increase between November 2016 and July 2017. RBFA received an 8 percent pay raise between December 2016 and July 2017. (Those discussions, as well, drug out from the previous contract’s expiration in July 2016 until January 2017.)
“But we’re still at the bottom, or second to the bottom” among neighboring cities, said RBEF President Allen. “The City points to our pay, but we tell everyone to look at the hours we put in; I’ll add up my hours to anyone in Redondo, in any job, that says they work more hours than me.”
The residents, Allen said, deserve to get what they’re paying for with their taxes.
“If any council members want fewer engines and fewer paramedics, they need to stand up and identify themselves and get it on record that they need to cut the Fire Department, because we need to recognize them, and the citizens who voted them in need to hear who they are,” Allen said.
“The guys who work at this Fire Department are going to do everything they can to service the calls,” Allen said. “But at a certain point, we can only juggle so many balls, and one is going to drop. That’s the point we’re at.”