|Today it's my city, tomorrow it's yours|
|Written by Matt Mustard|
In California, we have borne a constant assault since 2000. In fact, in 2005 we faced a Special Election, bankrolled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was attempting to use the bully-pulpit of the ballot box to destroy the gains we've made at the bargaining table.
An unprecedented coalition of law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, and other public employees came together to defeat this all-out attack with a campaign that cost over one hundred million dollars to win. That historic campaign redefined today's associations/unions as teachers, nurses, firefighters, and law enforcement professionals.
While we won that battle, our opponents spent millions and millions of dollars demonizing our wages and benefits as the cause of strained budgets. They have launched a permanent campaign to turn public opinion against what we have earned. This summer, to much media fanfare, the City of Vallejo declared bankruptcy, blaming the "high cost of wages and benefits for police, firefighters and municipal employees" as the reason for their insolvency.
In open court, the attorney for the City of Vallejo admitted that the only reason they had filed for bankruptcy was to break the union contacts. During court proceedings, the City of Vallejo has been allowed to unilaterally cut our pay by 13 percent. To avoid bankruptcy, and the possible wholesale destruction of our contracts, our city's union coalition of the Vallejo Police Officers Association, the Vallejo Firefighters Association, and the IBEW Municipal Employees Association offered a pay cut of $10 million dollars to solve a supposed $16 million dollar defecit.
The city firmly rejected our offer because they were intent not on solving the problem, but on using bankruptcy and the courts to break our contracts. Throughout the trial, we have made it clear that the Vallejo City Council had made a number of irresponsible financial decisions over many years. After the first phase of the trial, the judge disregardedall the bad decisions, saying the issue was not how the city became insolvent, but only that the City was now unable to pay its bills.
The judge ruled that he could not force the City to accept any offer from the employees, even if it solved the problem. The Vallejo City Council will be allowed to use the bankruptcy court to cover the tracks of their bad decisions. The City now wants to meet to discuss what they intend to take from our closed contracts that do not expire until 2010.
We're entering the talks, asking how they intend to create a short and long term economic plan to revitalize our city and restore quality services. Since the bankruptcy process began, 20 percent of Vallejo's police officers have left for other jobs, while crime is on the increase. It's open season for criminals in our city. The police department had 147 sworn, including the Chief, in January of 2008; today we have 117. At this rate we will have 100 sworn by January of 2009 to protect a population of 124,000. Staffing levels have not been that low since the 1970s.
Throughout this fight in Vallejo, our staff has received many inquiries from public safety union leaders across the U.S. who say that their elected officials or management have made veiled threats about the "Vallejo model" of using bankruptcy instead of bargaining.
Any association could be next. With so many local and state governments facing record budget shortfalls, there is more at stake now than ever before. We must take preemptive action before a city council or county government makes too many bad decisions that will land it in bankruptcy court where our contracts are vulnerable. That's why we wanted to share some of what we have learned in Vallejo:
* Expose Bad Financial Decisions As They Happen. By the time we found out that Vallejo had misspent millions of dollars that should have been in our General Fund, it was too late. The bankruptcy court has failed to hold the city accountable. It is vital that we hold city councils accountable for the budget decisions they make before the money is misspent. o Scrutinize Priorities and Spending Decisions. Vallejo got caught up in risky land investments and lost millions of dollars. We hired an independent auditor who uncovered this and other misplaced priorities and bad decisions. Everyone would be wise to commission audits periodically to make sure that municipal finance directors are not misleading city decision makers.
* More State Oversight and Budget Transparency. Local governments are allowed to make too many bad decisions, and there are no clear circumstances that dictate when a state auditor must examine a city's books. In some cases more state oversight should be required. Please accept our heartfelt thanks to all of you who have made a financial contribution to help us fund this legal battle.
As you may know, the VPOA is projected to spend $1.3 million in legal fees, auditors, and additional professional services. Each of our members is paying additional dues (3% of salary), our state organization has stepped up to help, and other sisters and brothers all across the country have stood with us in this epic battle.
We will be forever grateful. But we are still far short of the money we need to pay the bills. If any of you are thinking of making a contribution, the time is right to lend a hand. We have created a website, www.VallejoBankruptcyUpdate.com, where you can keep up on the latest activities and help spread the word about the dangers of municipal bankruptcy.
While we are waging this legal battle in Vallejo, we are fighting to protect the wages, pensions, benefits, and rights on the job of law enforcement staff in every corner of America. For more information, or to make a donation, please contact the Vallejo Police Officers Association at P.O. Box 4218 Vallejo, Ca. 94590 or phone 707-644-3913.