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Angry about the money spigot at L.A.'s Department of Water and Power

City officials get an earful from residents upset about proposed new contract under which employees still won't have to contribute toward healthcare costs.

August 17, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Joanne Yvanek-Garb of the West Hills Neighborhood Council tells the L.A. City Council at a public hearing on a proposed labor agreement that her Department of Water and Power bill is already too high. “I don’t have more pockets for you guys to dip into to get more money for rate increases,” she said.
Joanne Yvanek-Garb of the West Hills Neighborhood Council tells the L.A.… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Ordinarily, I don't spend more than an hour or so at a time in Los Angeles City Hall. I get in and out of there, quick as a burglar, to avoid having my judgment impaired.

I thought longingly about that approach on Friday, when I attended a windy public hearing on a proposed new contract for employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For the first two hours, public officials explained the contract, in mostly rosy terms.

It wasn't perfect, they said, but pretty good.

And to be fair, the contract does include some givebacks from Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with a significantly less lucrative deal for future hires, and it would deliver an estimated saving of several billion dollars over 30 years.

But the ordinary people who schlepped to City Hall on Friday and waited patiently to speak had something else on their minds.

They're angry about reports that their DWP rates will go up even with the concessions in the new contract.

They're angry that DWP employees, who've had sweetheart contracts for years, will still make significantly more than counterparts at other utilities or in comparable jobs at City Hall.

And they can't understand why neither current nor future DWP employees will have to contribute to healthcare premiums.

"This is all to the benefit of the DWP," said an exasperated Ann DeBello, who didn't like city officials talking about being under the gun to quickly approve a deal, before scheduled raises kick in this October.

The Hollywood resident couldn't believe that given city budget issues and diminished services, the contract did not call for employees to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

"I'm a nurse, and I pay toward my healthcare," said DeBello.

It's the healthcare part, I have to admit, that had me wondering what world the union and its good friends at City Hall are living in.

"Everybody needs to contribute to healthcare, thank you very much," said Carol Schatz of the Central City Assn. as she waited to testify. "You kidding me? Welcome to the real world."

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana later explained to me that by delaying promised raises for four years, as the contract proposes, the DWP will be able to put some of the savings toward employee healthcare costs. But he agreed that the deal falls short of what the city would prefer.

"Everyone should be paying — out of their paycheck — a contribution toward healthcare for themselves and their family," Santana said. "That's the position the city has and continues to advocate for."

And yet a majority of city employees make no such contribution toward their healthcare. If all non-DWP city employees paid just 10% of their premiums, Santana said, that would produce a saving of $50 million. If DWP employees all paid 10%, that would save an additional $15 million.

So why isn't it happening? And how can city officials keep dropping hints about asking voters to approve a bond measure to pay for basic services, like street repair, when they can't even get more than a small percentage of city employees to step up on healthcare premiums?

"I don't have more pockets for you guys to dip into to get more money for rate increases," Joanne Yvanek-Garb, of the West Hills Neighborhood Council, said at Friday's DWP hearing.

Jay Handal, chair of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, made reference in his testimony to recent Times articles about the DWP gravy train.

Some of the details in those stories, reported by my colleague Jack Dolan, are worth repeating. For example, the DWP has paid $35.5 million since 2010 to employees for extra sick days they took over and above the 10 they're officially allowed. Dolan also dug up an "outsourcing bonus" in which DWP employees are entitled to work extra hours and collect overtime pay when private contractors are hired by the agency.

And Ron Galperin, the new city controller, reported last week that DWP employees pocketed $77.3 million in extra pay in the first six months of this year for things like laying concrete or working in bad weather.

Handal scolded council members at the hearing for failing to address such issues for years "when The Times and the controller can come up with it in three weeks."

"This is the opportunity for the council to start overall reform, not Band-Aiding it like we always do," Handal said at the hearing.

Yeah, sure, but the IBEW has practically owned City Hall for years, bankrolling campaigns and grooming friends. The one city official who isn't cheering for the contract proposal is Mayor Eric Garcetti.

No surprise there. IBEW bet all its money trying to get his opponent elected.

Garcetti's staff says he's still trying to work a better deal on healthcare, pensions and, in particular, the loose DWP work rules that raise questions about featherbedding and who's really in charge of DWP — the administrators, the DWP board or the union. On Friday, he announced his appointees to the board and promised to shake things up. Now we'll see if he can deliver.

So, stay tuned to the drama. In the next couple of weeks, you may find out who's got mojo at the new City Hall. And you may also get a hint of what your DWP bills are going to look like over the next couple of decades.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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