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L.A. County Braces for More Deputy Walkouts

October 14, 2003|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Officials opened an emergency operations center Monday and Los Angeles police prepared to back up Sheriff Lee Baca as another round of wildcat strikes by deputies loomed.

Hundreds of deputies have called in sick over the last three weeks, protesting stalled talks despite Baca's threat to suspend deputies who participate and a judge's order against the work slowdown.

County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen sent a memo to the Board of Supervisors saying that sheriff's officials were bracing for more job actions this week that could disrupt jail and courts operations as well as police patrols.

The Los Angeles Police Department activated its emergency operations center, effective 4 a.m. today. LAPD commanders said they are ready to send officers to patrol areas normally served by deputies, and to help with the job of moving jail inmates to the 40 courthouses in Los Angeles County.

Deputies have been working without a contract since January. Their union has asked for pay raises of 3% for each of the next three years, which would be comparable to salary hikes in the latest LAPD contract. The deputies also want the county to offset rising health insurance costs.

County officials say there simply isn't enough money. Sheriff's deputies point out that they are not in the top 10 for highest law enforcement salaries in California. The average annual salary for Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies is $71,100, below that paid to police officers in Anaheim, Glendale, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"Every time there's a contract, even when times were good, we have to fight to keep up with inflation," said Dan Garces, executive director of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Professional Assn. "The city of Los Angeles faced the same budgetary problems, and they managed to give raises."

Deputies' wages have increased 19% through the last two three-year contracts. Those salary raises have outstripped inflation, which in greater Los Angeles has averaged 2.48% annually since 1997, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"When we had it to give, we gave and we put real money in their pockets," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said of the pay raises, retirement enhancements and health benefits. "But for us to enter into multiyear contracts which commit us to ongoing expenditures that we don't know that we can sustain would be fiscally irresponsible in the extreme, and that's what we're facing."

In a survey of officer pay in 26 police and county sheriff's departments statewide in December 2002, Los Angeles County ranked 12th, according to county officials.

San Francisco's average was $79,212, Glendale's was $77,520 and Anaheim's was $76,522. Other jurisdictions with higher pay than Los Angeles sheriff's deputies include the counties of Orange, fifth; Santa Clara, sixth; Alameda, seventh; and Contra Costa, ninth, as well as the cities of Oakland, eighth; Pomona, 10th; and Riverside, 11th. The statewide average for all 26 departments was $67,564 -- 5% less than the average pay for the local deputies.

"We do salary surveys to keep track of what other jurisdictions are doing so we can be competitive," said Janssen. "But the bottom line is, we do what we can afford to do, based on our budget situation, not their situation."

"Counties are in far worse condition than are cities statewide. We are coming off of six very good years," Janssen said. "We cannot afford salary increases at this time."

Union officials and deputies disagree.

"I have one deputy who said that because of increases in the payout for health benefits, he had to cancel his health insurance with the county and switch to his wife's company because he wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise," Garces said.

Garces said health costs are a particular concern. Basic health coverage could cost deputies as much as $972 a year more, he said. For deputies who choose better health insurance coverage, health plan costs are slated to increase from $1,900 annually to more than $3,000, Garces said.

"Most cops live from paycheck to paycheck," Garces added, "so if you take $3,000 a year out their pay, something has to give."

In the most recent pact, signed in 2000, deputies received a three-year, 9% wage hike: a 4% pay jump in the first year, followed by a 3% raise the next year and 2% in 2002, the final year of the contract.

The last time acrimony over contract talks was so intense was in 1997. Before agreeing to a 10% pay hike over three years, deputies staged sickouts that at one point involved 300 deputies a day. The deal finally reached that year included a 3% wage hike the first year, 4% in the second and 3% in the third. In addition, officers received a 2% training bonus the first year, along with a $2,100 uniform allowance that was revised to $1,000 in subsequent years.

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