Local coverage of the city’s budget over the past few months has increasingly targeted city employee salaries as the source of the city’s budget problems. An example of this appeared in the April 20-22 issue of the Daily Planet, where the “Citizens Budget Oversight Committee,” a self appointed committee, authored an article about grossly overpaid and benefited employees. This was presented as fact in a fictionalized account of a “typical” city employee and accounting expert.
The article made inaccurate assumptions about median age of retirement, life expectancy and median years of employment in order to create an outrageous retirement package. In truth, few employees remain with the city for 28 years, life expectancy calculations were overstated by 20 percent, only upper management make the salaries cited, and in fact, some city employees die shortly before receiving their pension or just after retirement and therefore never draw down their pensions.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the cost of the city’s pension is part of the entire benefit package, not in addition to it. This is important because, in lieu of a pension, city workers will receive no Social Security benefits for their years of work. The article used a pension of $74,000 per year and thus an annual salary at retirement of more than $98,000, even though less than one percent of miscellaneous union employees make anywhere near that much. Finally, the article has its fictional employee receiving an additional $6,000 a year for medical costs for 25 years. In truth, workers receive this benefit for five years and employees paid for this benefit by forfeiting a pay increase in the previous contract.
Local coverage has not mentioned the other points of view. City of Berkeley employees are real people with families to support. Many live in Berkeley while others cannot afford to buy homes anywhere in the Bay Area, much less in Berkeley. The vast majority of city employees receive compensation comparable to the median compensation of five neighboring cities. These cities are not high paying cities and include Hayward, Oakland and Vallejo. Senior executive staff such as the city manager and department heads who are NOT represented by unions, receive compensation comparable to top wage earners in high paying municipalities and in most cases make over $145,000 per year.
• Unions submitted 135 cost-saving proposals and management has not implemented any of them, preferring instead to allow city employee salaries to take the blame for the budget problems.
• Top wage earners in the City publicly stated that they forfeited 3% of their salary to address the budget problem when in fact, that forfeiture has not occurred.
• City policy prohibits employees from speaking to Council members and media outlets making it difficult to relay accurate information to the public.
• There is an ever-increasing salary gap between unrepresented senior management and employees within the miscellaneous unions.
• City workers voluntarily gave over $3 million in retirement cost savings to the City of Berkeley during better budgetary times. The city did not bank those dollars but spent them. Had the city saved or invested those dollars, we would not be faced with this budgetary situation.
• There is a significant resistance on the part of the city to tackle real organizational reform or big money items.
Let’s get real. Making false characterizations regarding ”typical” city salaries is political and unproductive. Citizens, along with employees, should demand that the city commit itself to progressive organizational reform efforts that improve service to the community instead of the city spending valuable time and resources avoiding systemic change and fallaciously targeting staff salaries. City employees deserve fair and equitable salaries and benefits consistent with negotiated contracts in the same way that citizens deserve excellent and efficient city services. Employees have and will continue to offer viable solutions to creatively address budget problems, while maintaining a commitment to high quality and innovative programs for this community
—Public Employees Union Local One, City of Berkeley.