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Top Stories: Oct. 26, 2009

Figone Forced to Make Cuts; SJPD Officer Videotaped Beating SJS Student; PA City Workers Vote on Strike

City Manager Faced with Budget Dilemma
City Manager Debra Figone has a huge dilemma on her hands. With San Jose facing a $90 million deficit, she is being forced to make drastic spending cuts. Laying her options on the table, she explains that since personnel costs account for almost $600 million of the city's general operating fund, she can either slash benefits or lay off 763 municipal workers, almost 12 percent of the city's total workforce. With new union contracts about to be negotiated for most of these workers, she is about to face a fight.

Workers’ representatives claim that they have already given up raises, taken furloughs, and accepted higher health insurance costs, and that the city must find alternative sources to raise the necessary funds. Figone argues that the alternative would be raising taxes on local residents, and that this would be unacceptable to the voters. This is the result of nine consecutive deficits, she explains, while the average cost per worker has skyrocketed by 64 percent over the past nine years. Had it kept pace with inflation, it would only have increased 18 percent.

Most union leaders declined to comment on Figone's report. One exception was Cindy Chavez, head of the South Bay Labor Council. The former city councilwoman and mayoral candidate contends that the city should dip into the millions of dollars left over each year in the operating fund and that tax hikes should not be dismissed summarily.

But Figone is not convinced, and claims that even these solution would not provide enough funds to cover the deficit. Meanwhile, as contract negotiations grow closer, San Jose could be the site of a bitter struggle between the city and its workers.
Read More at the Mercury News.

SJPD Officer on Leave for Allegedly Using Excessive Force
The SJPD is investigating whether two policemen, Kenneth Siegel and Steven Payne, used excessive force when arresting a San Jose University student, Phuong Ho, 20. Ho alleges that he was hit repeatedly with a baton and Tasered, even after he was lying handcuffed on the floor. At the center of the case is a grainy video shot by one of Ho's roommates, which shows one officer swinging a baton, while the other officer appears to zap Ho with a taser. Ho is then struck again—apparently after he was handcuffed.

The incident took place on Sept. 3, when one of Ho's roommates spilled soap on a steak that Ho was eating. According to witnesses, Ho then picked up a steak knife and told his roommate that if they were in Vietnam, he could have killed him for ruining his steak. Ho later explained that he was speaking hyperbolically, and had no intention of actually killing him.

Lawyers for the police officers argue that the video shows only part of the incident and does not provide any context for their harsh reaction. Ho's attorney responds that this is a simple case of police brutality. The officers, and two others who were present with them, have been placed on paid leave while the SJPD conducts an investigation. The results will be given to DA Dolores Carr for review. The officers face disciplinary charges, an official reprimand, and possibly even termination for the incident.

In an official statement, Mayor Chuck Reed declared that he was "confident that the investigations will be carried out so that all parties involved receive due process under the law and that justice will be done as determined by the facts and the law."
Read More at San Jose Inside.
Read More at the Mercury News.
Read More at NBC Bay Area.

Palo Alto Workers to Vote on Strike Tuesday
While tensions between the city and the union fester in San Jose, Palo Alto's largest municipal workers union, SEIU Local 521, is preparing to vote Tuesday on whether to go on strike. The likelihood of a strike will be determined this morning, when Palo Alto's City Council votes on whether to approve a final contract offer to the union. The new contract introduces major changes to the workers' benefit package, while the SEIU has offered furloughs and reduced vacation time instead. City officials claim that the savings from such a plan are doubtful, whereas the budget demands a $3 million cut so as not to run a deficit.

Negotiations with the city reached an impasse last Tuesday, which prompted the city to make a unilateral offer to the union. Kelly Morariu, Assistant to the City Manager said: "We're really hopeful the union doesn't strike, but it is their legal right." Read More at the Mercury News.

San Jose Woman Killed by Drag Racers
Alyson Snow was only 20 when she died. Her car was caught in the middle of a drag race on a quiet stretch of Branham Lane. According to police, two drivers, Manual Pourmand and Joseph Inocencio, were racing down the street when one of them lost control of his vehicle. He rammed into Snow's car and forced it into a tree. She died there just a few minutes later.

Police say that drag racing has increasingly become a problem in South San Jose, where youngsters gather on the weekends to race along the flat roads there. Fatalities are not unusual either. According to one eyewitness, this was the fifth death to occur on that same stretch of road. While the police have stepped up their surveillance of the area, especially on weekends, this is starting to cost the department.

A state grant to help defray overtime expenses runs out at the end of the year, and with the state's budget what it is, it seems unlikely that it will be renewed.

The city has several options. It could put speed bumps on the road, but that would be an impediment to regular drivers, or it could follow Oakland's lead by setting aside a designated area for people to race.
Read More at ABC 7.

Hospital Focus of New Workers Comp Initiative
Santa Clara County officials are testing a new approach to handling workers compensation. Using construction of the new wing at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center as testing ground, it is attempting to use alternative dispute resolution methods to resolve issues surrounding worker compensation. Workers injured on the job will now go through a mediation process, instead of heading directly to court. Neil Struthers, Neil Struthers, CEO of the County's Building & Construction Trades Council, says that this could lead to a dramatic reduction in workers compensation costs, which are ultimately paid by the taxpayer. For construction companies using high risk workers, comp costs can account for as much as 30 percent of the project.
Read More at the Business Journal.

Wildfire Rages in Santa Cruz Mountains
Dozens of families have fled their homes to escape a 600-acre wildfire in Summit area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some 100 homes were lost in the same area in May of last year.

The fire department is still investigating the cause of the blaze, which erupted at about 3:00 am Sunday. The area was drenched by the storm two weeks ago, but Alex Leman of the Loma Prieta Fire Department explained that the inner core of the wood remained dry, making the area vulnerable. The fire spread quickly because of 40 mph winds in the area on Sunday.

Over 1,200 firefighters have helped to control the blaze, which was 20 percent contained by last night. Temporary headquarters to coordinate the effort were set up in the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.
Read More at ABC 7.
Read More in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.