The economy is gaining steam, home prices are up and tax revenue is on the rise in California and Los Angeles, giving government some extra money to restore cuts made during the recession. It's understandable, then, that city employee unions — whose members gave up raises and were furloughed during the worst of the crisis — are pushing for pay hikes. But Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council have made the right decision in budgeting no across-the-board raises for workers this year while the city tries to eliminate by 2018 an ongoing deficit that has sapped money for street and sidewalk repair and other improvements.
City leaders are now facing the first test of that decision. Last week, rank-and-file police officers rejected a one-year contract that provided more money for cash overtime payments but included no cost-of-living increase for most officers. (It did raise pay for new hires and for about 1,000 officers who recently joined the LAPD at a lower salary, to help with recruiting and retention.) Representatives of the Los Angeles Police Protective League said their members considered the proposal, which withheld raises for 90% of them, "a slap in the face."
To be sure, LAPD officers have made sacrifices in recent years. City leaders slashed the amount of money available for overtime. When officers worked past their shifts, their overtime payments were indefinitely deferred or they were forced to take comp time off at the department's whim, which led to hundreds fewer cops on the streets each day. The proposed contract would have doubled the cash overtime budget to $70 million, returning a significant portion of officers' take-home pay without busting the current city budget or adding to pension expenses. For every dollar paid in salary to police officers, the city must come up with 50 cents more for retirement costs.
The police officers' contract is only the first challenge to L.A.'s attempt at fiscal restraint. Firefighters and civilian employee unions are still negotiating, and there will be increasing pressure on city leaders to compensate workers for past sacrifices. Garcetti and the City Council should stand firm, remembering how generous pay raises before the recession proved too expensive and thousands of jobs had to be cut to help avoid bankruptcy. Holding employee pay and benefits to sustainable levels now will eventually put L.A. back on solid financial ground, and allow the city to begin reinvesting in services, infrastructure and — yes — even workers' salaries.
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