After weeks of machinations, the kind that high-stakes labor negotiations frequently produce, the city of San Jose and its police union began talking directly to each other 10 days ago. It isn’t clear that either side is listening.

And, for the city’s million or so residents, in play are their collective safety and the fiscal soundness of the institutions that deliver the kind of government services they’re most likely to encounter in day-to-day life.

The Police Officers Association announced Friday that its members would accept a one-time 10 percent cut in pay and benefits for the coming year. Union leaders cast the move as a generous proposal that would save jobs. Mayor Chuck Reed immediately called the offer inadequate, and warned that it came dangerously late in the game.

Initial agreements are due in a month. As of Tuesday, both sides have dug into their positions and are refusing to budge.

As a result, 250 police officers—20 percent of the force—could lose their jobs.

Reed will deliver his budget message on June 3, and his office says that unless the POA agrees to an indefinite pay cut, arbitration hearings would force hundreds of officers out of a job until a resolution is reached.

“If things don’t go well, we’re in trouble,” Reed says. “If they go worse, we’re in deeper trouble. So we need to have some of these changes made to prevent the city from a fiscal and safety disaster.”

The city is facing a $115.2 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, and City Manager Debra Figone’s proposed budget, released on Monday, paints a bleak picture. Libraries and community centers will be closed for three or more days every week. And 650 city positions will likely be eliminated—even if all 11 labor unions agree to 10 percent cuts in compensation.

“The severe reductions recommended in this Proposed Budget are sobering and will in one way or another touch every person in San Jose,” Figone writes.

The number of positions eliminated could increase to more than 1,000 if Alex Gurza, the city’s lead negotiator, cannot cut deals with the remaining six unions. Gurza is clearly irked with the POA’s strategy.

In a letter dated May 2, Gurza scolded union president George Beattie for holding a press conference and showing his plan to the media “prior to the conclusion of our meeting—during which the proposal was being presented to the City’s negotiating team for the first time.”

Jim Unland, vice president of the POA, says the city’s proposed cuts unfairly affect junior officers, who would be the first to lose their jobs under the union’s seniority rules. He also says the cuts will hamstring San Jose’s ability to recruit officers and re-staff the ranks in the future. (San Jose has no police academy, so anyone new would have to transfer from another city’s police department.)

“We certainly have to worry about the marketplace,” Reed concedes, “but we have priced ourselves out of the market. Even though we need officers—I don’t think we have enough officers today—we can’t afford them. We’ll have to compete, but sometimes you don’t have the luxury to compete when you don’t have the cash.”

The city is firmly committed to accepting nothing short of the 10 percent ongoing cuts, because agreements with other unions contain “me-too” clauses, which would allow for negotiations with other unions to be reopened if the same concessions aren’t reached.


Ballot Battle

Reed, Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and Councilmember Sam Liccardo have already begun preparations to include voters in the process. The trio is proposing a ballot measure for November that would address abuses in the disability retirement program. A city audit shows that, compared to the national average, San Jose has an unusually large number of police officers and firefighters going on disability and then taking other full-time jobs after they retire.

From 2000 to 2008, two out of three fire personnel and more than one out of three SJPD personnel retired on a service-related disability—a rate dramatically higher than those seen for sworn officers in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

Unland says the POA is willing to look at retirement, disability and pension reform, but in the same breath he accuses Reed and his staff of playing dirty in the public relations game.

Unland points to a so-called “Vested Rights Doctrine,” which according to the POA prevents the city from changing the pension plans of officers now serving on the force.

“We’d love to sit at the table and explore [vested rights],” Unland says. “Tell us what Reed’s people know, tell us what the gray area is. But that’s not Reed’s style.”

At this suggestion, the mayor’s spine stiffens. “That’s the official party line for all of the unions,” he says, “but that is not, in fact, what the law is.”

Reed says that even though a right may be vested, it doesn’t mean it’s untouchable. “We have some rights to change things that we have reserved under our charter,” he says.

If Gurza and his negotiating team can’t change pensions through mediation with the city’s unions, Reed could put more measures on November’s ballot.

“It’s being discussed constantly,” Reed says. “We’re in great danger of being unable to provide city services.”

All sides agree that a large number of San Jose police officers are guaranteed to lose their jobs, which would be a first in the city’s history. Chief Chris Moore has already handed out more than 100 pink slips. While he is working with the city on securing a federal grant that could save up to 50 jobs, a three-month gap between the beginning of the city’s and fed’s fiscal years—July 1 and Oct. 1—makes it much more difficult to maintain staff levels in the meantime.

Less than four weeks remain in the race to find common ground.

“I think at the end it could always go to arbitration,” says Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio, “but if they go to arbitration it’s going to take some time—and 200 officers are laid off. Then it becomes a blinking contest.”