Calif. City Considering Sidelining Firefighters, Cops

May 18, 2013
Watsonville may lay off three firefighters and three officers.

May 18--WATSONVILLE -- Watsonville's city manager is proposing to lay off police officers and firefighters if unions won't agree to concessions.

But even if workers and management can come to an agreement, public safety and social services would be reduced $700,000 next year to help bridge a $3.1 million budget gap under a plan that will come before the City Council on Tuesday.

"Our revenue increases are pretty anemic and costs are going up, mostly in pension and health (benefits)," said City Manager Carlos Palacios. "We're at the point where our revenues in the city won't maintain our current level of services."

Palacios said leaders may have to consider asking voters for a sales tax increase or other revenue measure in 2014 to maintain services. For now, leaders have no choice but to ask employees to continue to make sacrifices.

The city is close to a deal with several bargaining units to continue furloughs and other concessions put in place during the past four years, Palacios said. But agreements have not been reached in negotiations with firefighters and the clerical and technical workers represented by Service Employees International Union.

The police officers' contract doesn't expire until December, and they haven't agreed to return to the table before then. A 2.5 percent pay hike for officers, sergeants and lieutenants, deferred since 2011, is set to go into effect in July. Another 2.5 percent increase is scheduled for December.

Hard choices

Palacios will present two alternatives to the council. At worse, if deals are not reached in the outstanding negotiations, he's asking the council to approve laying off three police officers, three firefighters and the equivalent of 5.5 full-time workers represented by SEIU.

Public safety is a priority, Palacios said, but the council has not narrowly defined the issue in the past. Recreation, for example, also plays a part in keeping the community safe, he said.

"The council ultimately has to make hard decisions," Palacios said. "All of our services are important to the public."

In addition to laying off three officers, Palacios' plan to cut $710,000 from the Police Department includes freezing a vacant officer position and a police service specialist, downgrading a lieutenant and sergeant in rank and eliminating their current positions, and eliminating the Police Activities League.

Police Chief Manny Solano said his department already has taken hits in the past few years, losing several positions, including its crime analyst, an administrative assistance, two parking officers and a deputy police chief. Nevertheless, in 2012 crime was down overall by 3 percent and violent crime was down 10 percent.

But Solano said staying engaged with the community, especially youth, is essential.

"These cuts, if they happen, will further whittle away our ability to remain a truly proactive Police Department," he said. "Rest assured, we will still respond to emergency calls for service, but may have to cut back on less priority services."

Fire cutbacks

The Fire Department's budget is reduced under both scenarios put forth by Palacios. If firefighters agree to concessions, the plan calls for an annual overtime cap of $250,000 -- a figure Fire Chief Marc Bisbee previously has called unrealistic given the size of the department and staffing

Watsonville Budget Summary 5.21.2013 -


In February, city officials reported overtime was running $315,000 higher than the recommended limit. The cap would be achieved by dropping the crew on the department's ladder truck from three to two whenever the monthly overtime limit is reached.

The ladder truck would see its crew permanently reduced to two if the firefighters don't meet city demands and the layoffs stand. The action would save $426,900.

In his report to the council, Palacios says since nearly 75 percent of the department's calls are medical, the staffing "is anticipated" to be appropriate.

Fire Capt. Corey Schaefer, president of Watsonville Professional Firefighters, Local 1272, disagrees. He said the layoffs would mean fewer paramedics

Watsonville Crime Press Release 2012 -

would be available for calls. Staffing the ladder truck with a two-person crew makes little sense, he said, since ladders carried on the truck, used for example to evacuate residents from second stories, require three people to deploy.

Two years ago, firefighters agreed to contribute 19 percent to their pensions, more than double the required amount for employee contributions by the state retirement fund. They also gave up a $500 uniform allowance and a program that allowed them to save for health costs in retirement. It amounted to a 12 percent pay cut, Schaefer said.

The current staffing proposals pose "very significant concerns not only for us and our own safety but also for having enough people on scene to do the job," Schaefer said. "I know finances are not there to support it, but there needs to be some prioritization for public safety. When you're constantly turning toward employees to finance the Fire Department, there's a problem with that."

Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones at


Watsonville budget proposals


--Fire department overtime capped at $250,000 with staffing cuts when limit reached

--Reduction in park maintenance

--Elimination of summer drop-in and lunch program at Marinovich and Callaghan parks

--Cut Saturday hours at Computer Service Center

--Reduce social service agency grants by $75,000


--Layoff three police officers, freeze one vacant police officer position

--Eliminate Police Activity League

--Layoff three firefighters

--Layoff equivalent of three accounting assistants

--Layoff two half-time library assistants

--Layoff two half-time code enforcement officers

--Layoff half-time engineering aide

--Requires concessions for all employee groups

*--Proposed if police, fire and SEIU represented employees do not agree to concessions

SOURCE: City of Watsonville, Agenda for May 21, 2013 special meeting


Watsonville City Council

WHAT: Budget study session

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Council Chamber, 275 Main St., fourth floor


Copyright 2013 - Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

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