By John Crowder
The elimination of “furlough Fridays” by the Antioch City Council at their November 13, 2014 meeting, the first meeting held since the passage of Measure O in the November 4 election, has left some residents who worked in support of the measure feeling betrayed and deceived.
Placed on the Consent Calendar at the meeting were three resolutions which, together, eliminated the furloughs negotiated with city employees and, in addition, provided them with 3% raises. The furloughs had been put in place while Antioch struggled to stave off bankruptcy during the housing crisis when property tax revenues plummeted. While the furloughs were in effect, many city employees worked a four-day, 36 hour work week, rather than a 40 hour work week, amounting to a 10% savings in salary expense for the city. Management employees continued to work 40 hours, but still had their wages cut 10%.
The first of the resolutions, Item 2G on the agenda, was to approve the Benefit Document between the city of Antioch and the Management Bargaining Unit. Item 2H was for approval of the Amended Benefit Document between the city and the Confidential Employees Bargaining Unit. Item 2I rescinded a resolution from 2010 regarding salary differentials.
A handful of residents had asked that the three items, G, H, and I, be pulled from the Consent Calendar in order to give them an opportunity to comment on the proposed actions. Some also spoke in opposition to the resolutions in the earlier public comments portion of the meeting.
Rich Buongiorno, who has been leading the effort to recall Mayor Wade Harper, said that the elimination of ‘furlough Fridays’ increased expenses at a time when the city was just made aware that they would be losing over $800,000 per year in revenue. This was due to the fact that the Brentwood City Council had just voted to end their contract with Antioch to provide them with police dispatch services.
Council Member-elect Lori Ogorchock also expressed concern about the elimination of ‘furlough Friday’s.’ She said the $400,000 in increased expenses that would result could be better used to hire more police and code enforcement officers. “Let’s get crime under control,” she said. She said that city offices could be kept open five days per week in other ways (by redistributing work hours). “I respectfully request that you hold off on the vote until I am seated,” she said.
Sandra McKee said, “I think building up our police department and getting a better handle on crime is much more important,” and that this was her intention when she voted for Measure C and Prop. O.
Robin Agopian, the widow of former Councilman Gary Agopian, said that, as a matter of fairness, newly elected councilwoman Lori Ogorchock should be seated prior to voting on the issues before them.
Mark Jordan said he wanted to postpone the votes because he doesn’t believe the public has enough information. Referring to Measure O, he said, “Not a penny of that money has come in yet.”
Former Councilman Manny Soliz also wanted to postpone the votes on the resolutions from both a budgetary and a philosophical standpoint. He expressed concern about the impending termination of the police dispatch contract between Antioch and Brentwood. “We’re going to have a hole in our budget, where there had been some funds coming in…which we’re not going to have any longer,” he said. On a philosophical basis, Soliz said, “Measure O was presented as a measure to try to address neighborhood improvement, and blighted properties.” He said that supporters of Measure O would see this action as a diversion of funds, and, “it seems to me just a little bit disingenuous.”
With the conclusion of public comments on G, Mayor Harper asked City Manager Steve Duran to speak to the issue.
“The council gave a clear direction to get people off furlough as soon as we reasonably could,” he said. “The Council approved spending priorities for Measure O on September 23rd, 2014.”
He then listed those priorities (See Antioch Herald article on September 23 council meeting, here.)
“The stated priorities of the council, before the election, did include getting off the furlough,” Duran said. “In terms of keeping your word, I just think people need to understand that’s what your word was.”
He continued, “Come January, we’ll now have had the employees on furlough for five-and-a-half years since they took a ten percent cut.” He also said that the $1.277 million in additional property tax revenue triggered contract language providing that, “the management bargaining unit was entitled to get off furlough right then, and they’ve agreed to delay that until…January 11th.” In closing, Duran said, “We can’t not do the trigger, because that’s a binding contract. And, second, the money is there, and the reasons the triggers hit is because the money’s there.”
Asked by Duran to comment, Michelle Fitzer, Administrative Services Director, addressed the idea that the Council delay the decision by saying “once the bargaining unit takes action to ratify a tentative agreement, the governing body has to take action within 30 days of that, and we do not have 30 days to wait to December 16th.” She continued, “If we do not take action, the council places the city in liability for a PERB charge of unfair labor practices.”
Following Fitzer’s statement, Harper asked for Council comments. Council Member Tony Tiscareno gave a defense of the vote he was about to make.
Tiscareno said, “the last three, four months I’ve been out there talking to the citizens, knocking on doors and asking them, what they expect from us, and what their issues are. And yes, they were frustrated with the crime, but for the most part in their neighborhoods they were very happy where they lived, they felt safe in their community, that particular area. But one of the things they kept mentioning was that, you know, our streets can be repaired, we need to make sure that we have availability within our services so we can be serviced. And I heard that quite a bit. So one of the things I promised not only our staff was, I promised our community that we were going to be a full service city.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mary Rocha said that in light of the information provided by Fitzer regarding a potential unfair labor practices challenge, it was important to take action. She also said, “You have to remember, we asked these employees to take time off…they gave a lot, in order for us to keep the doors open.” She also noted, “We couldn’t afford bankruptcy…the employees were the ones who saved us.” She concluded, “I feel comfortable, knowing the money was there.”
In response to a question from Wilson, Fitzer responded, “In the management benefit agreement, there was trigger language. When the property tax in particular came in, in July, at over a million dollars more than was anticipated, we reached…the trigger.” She also addressed the question of whether or not the trigger had expired. She said, “under the labor laws, the contract provisions remain in effect until a new contract is negotiated or imposed…” She continued, “if the city had tried to argue that the trigger had expired, the employee group could then have come back and argued, well then the furlough language expired as well, because they’re tied together.”
Mayor Harper said, “I think we need to realize, that the employees saved us from bankruptcy years ago.” He spoke about them sacrificing for five and a half years. “Now that we have the money, we can’t say, we have it, but we’re not giving it to you.” He also reiterated the previous comments about being a full service city. He concluded, “I believe the employees saved us, I believe we have to do right by the employees.” He also noted, “We didn’t just hear about this trigger today,” and spoke about closed session meetings, where he said, “we’ve talked about this trigger, over and over.”
Following Harper’s statement, the council voted 4-0 in favor of Item G, and speakers came forward to address Item H.
Jordan returned to the microphone to say, “While you have been informed of the information regarding the trigger and the reinstatement of the employees, and that should occur, from the perspective of the public, this is being dropped very quickly. He added, “the communication that we’re receiving at our end, relative to the trigger, why it’s occurring, the contractual obligations, I don’t believe was communicated well, to us.” Soliz also spoke again, saying what they were doing, “sends the wrong message to the public.” He wondered if the outcome of the Measure O vote would have been different, “if people had understood that the funds were going to be going to something other than neighborhood improvement, and police infrastructure.”
Ken Turnage said, “I just don’t understand, exactly, what is going on here.” “You folks have had to know for a while, this was going to happen right about now. Why wasn’t it said before the election?” “He said the perception was, “like having a blanket pulled over your head.” “The perception is, we were deceived,” he concluded.
After public comments, Harper asked Duran to repeat the information from September 23, and Duran again listed all the priorities, including ending the furloughs.
Each of the council members then made statements emphasizing that the money for getting the employees back to a 40 hour work week was coming from property tax, and had nothing to do with Measure O. Tiscareno said, “This is, to me, a positive thing for the city of Antioch.” Rocha, referring to city employees said, “It’s true, they did help us.”
Item H was then passed, 4-0, and public comments for Item I began.
Marty Fernandez, visibly upset by the proceedings, said, “This has been very interesting. You’re right. A lot of people busted their butts to get Measure O passed. And this just isn’t right.” “There comes a time when you have to stop. I don’t agree with these secret negotiations for the contracts. This has to be done in public.” He went on to complain that, “You have city workers negotiating with city workers. They stand to gain, everybody gains.”
After Fernandez spoke, the council voted and passed item I, also on a 4-0 vote.
Following a short break, Dawn Merchant, Antioch’s Finance Director, spoke on budget matters which, according to staff and council member statements, related directly to the contentious votes just taken.
Merchant said that, while they had been projecting a 5% increase in property tax, they had actually received a 17.81% increase. She said this was the first year Antioch has received an increase in property tax since 2008.
“We’re requesting the budget to be amended” by about $1.3 million, she said. She also spoke about annexation money coming in of about $300,000, and over $100,000 for state mandated reimbursements.
Following Merchant’s presentation, Rocha lamented the fact that many who complained about the furlough vote were no longer in the audience, as she felt the presentation by Merchant explained that the money for ending the furloughs was coming from increased property tax revenue, not Measure O funds
The next city council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, November 25, at 7:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers, 3rd & H Streets in downtown Antioch. It can also be viewed online via live streaming video at www.ci.antioch.ca.us/CityGov/citycouncilmeetings.htm.