A new battle flared over public safety funding in Ventura County on Tuesday, with a standing-room-only crowd of sheriff's deputies accusing the Board of Supervisors of no longer making residents' safety a top priority.
Armed with a poll showing strong public support for increased pay and benefits for 750 deputies, union chief Glen Kitzmann told supervisors the latest offer by the county's negotiating team was a "personal insult to every one of us."
Kitzmann warned board Chairman Frank Schillo and Supervisor Judy Mikels, both of whom are up for reelection next year, that they would be held accountable if they did not step in to offer the deputies a better package.
"Neither we, nor the public, believe you any longer when you say that you are committed to maintaining public safety in Ventura County," Kitzmann said.
The deputies were backed by Sheriff Bob Brooks, who told supervisors if a contract is not settled soon he will have a difficult time attracting recruits.
"A major part of our success in keeping the public's trust and maintaining one of the nation's lowest crime rates is our determination to resist the temptation to compromise on the quality of our personnel," Brooks said.
Contract talks stalled over the union's demand that deputies receive raises whenever pay for law enforcement in surrounding counties increases. The union also wants an expansion of retirement benefits to allow a deputy with 25 years' service to retire at age 50 with 75% of his or her pay.
County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said the county cannot afford that package and meet the demands of another employees group--Service Employees International Union, Local 998--also pushing for better pay and benefits for its 4,200 members.
At its last negotiating session, the county offered a 4% wage hike and requested that deputies receive the expanded retirement benefits at age 55.
When the deputies requested binding arbitration, the county filed a lawsuit declaring a mediation panel unconstitutional.
Fearing a prolonged impasse, Kitzmann's union hired a labor consultant, commissioned the $8,500 poll and organized the show of force before the board Tuesday. Kitzmann said he has no choice but to go to battle.
"They fired the shot, and we're just returning," he said. "It's David and Goliath, and we're the little guy."
Sheriff's deputies patrol Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Camarillo, Fillmore, Ojai and unincorporated areas of Ventura County. They earn between $41,939 and $58,552 annually, depending on experience, and are entitled to 50% of their pay as a pension.
Pollster David Binder Research surveyed 404 registered voters in Ventura County last month. Results show that 77% believe deputies should receive a wage and benefit package that is "about the same" as law enforcement agencies in Southern California. Another 12% said the package should be "somewhat greater" than other counties, while 5% said it should be "somewhat less."
Residents overwhelmingly support binding arbitration to resolve differences, with 90% saying that is preferable to a strike.
Johnston questioned the value of the poll because participants were not told another union--the county's largest, representing employees such as accountants, clerks and social workers--is also seeking significant increases in pay and benefits. Johnston called Tuesday's actions a "political gesture" designed to put pressure on board members.
"The board is showing courage by not dissolving the negotiating process," Johnston said. "We are not saying, 'No, under any circumstance.' We are saying, 'We don't know how to pay for it.' "
SEIU Local 988 is asking for competitive wages and retirement benefits that include a cost-of-living adjustment. About 85% of the workers it represents are not entitled to inflationary increases on pensions.
Although the county's retirement system now has a $300-million surplus, that could quickly evaporate if all benefit demands are approved and the stock market tumbles, Johnston said. Supervisors then would be obligated to make up the difference out of the general fund, discretionary money used for a variety of government services, he said.