A budget advisory panel has tentatively recommended that city employees take a 3% pay cut to help offset a $6.5-million budget deficit projected for next year.
The suggestion, which would save the city $1.7 million, is a key element of an interim budget-tightening report that the Budget Review Task Force presented Monday to the City Council.
If the 11-member panel includes the pay cut in its final recommendations to the council next month, the issue will probably be the most divisive proposal that council members will consider in the budget overhaul.
With the exception of the city's firefighters, who are immersed in a contract dispute, all city employees next year are scheduled to receive 5% pay raises. Under the task force's proposal, the employees would be asked to have their raises lowered to 2%.
The city could not impose pay cuts without approval of its six employee associations, five of which are under contracts extending until 1993.
Reopening those contract agreements could require lengthy negotiations, perhaps without success, which council members clearly indicated they hope to avoid.
At Monday's meeting with the task force, council members did not dismiss the idea, but strongly urged the panel to propose viable alternatives to slashing salaries.
Most city employee union leaders reached for comment Tuesday declined to discuss the proposed pay cut. Two union presidents who did comment on the idea said they believe that it unlikely that employees will agree to relinquish any portion of their wages.
Lt. Charles Poe, president of the Huntington Beach Police Management Organization, said he has not discussed the suggested pay cuts with his group's 15 members. "But I seriously doubt that people in the management association would agree to that unless they were shown proof that this was absolutely the last way the city can keep from going under," he said.
John Barth, president of the nine-member Marine Safety Officers Assn., said he considers it too early to take a position on the proposal. But he added that he believes that cutting salaries would diminish the quality of workers the city is able to attract and retain.
The task force's preliminary plan does not call for any job layoffs. But if a pay rollback is not approved, it may recommend that some positions be eliminated, said task force member Bill Rea, who is directing the group's budget-reduction study.
Local anti-tax crusaders, who recently criticized the council for extending union-level pay raises to 39 unrepresented employees, are closely monitoring the pay rollback issue.
Huntington Beach Tomorrow, a local council watchdog group, and Taxpayers Action Network, a countywide anti-tax organization, have called on the council to suspend all employees' raises until the national recession eases. Both groups are opposed to granting raises of even 2% for employees next year.
Ray Harbour, spokesman for Taxpayers Action Network, asked council members: "Are you willing to take the heat for laying off people if the raise situation is not kept in control?"
Harbour said his group, which has gained prominence since persuading county supervisors to repeal their pay raise package, plans to keep pressure on the council until its final 1992-93 budget is approved.