Already facing a possible strike by one employee group, Ventura County supervisors are being hammered in an aggressive media campaign launched by sheriff's deputies also seeking better pay and benefits.
But two weeks into a $40,000 barrage that includes ads in newspapers, radio and television, a public opinion poll and a financial audit, the deputies' hardball crusade to win over the public may be backfiring.
Supervisors are keeping track of calls on the issue and all five say constituents are strongly urging them to move cautiously on granting any raises or expansion in benefits for the 750 deputies.
Callers seem most alarmed about the union's demand for a benefit that would allow a 50-year-old deputy with 25 years' service to retire and receive a pension check that equals 75% of his or her active pay, supervisors say.
"I've gotten about 15 calls and some e-mails," said Supervisor John Flynn of Oxnard. "One or two at most have said you need to work with the deputies. But the rest are saying, 'Look, retiring at 50 years old? Boy, you don't find any carpenters retiring at that age. You don't find anyone retiring at that age except rich people.' "
Callers are saying the same thing in the law-and-order east county districts represented by board Chairman Frank Schillo and Supervisor Judy Mikels. Schillo, based in Thousand Oaks, said he has taken 14 calls, and 13 urged the supervisors not to give the deputies everything they want.
"Most of it was, 'Hang in there,' " Schillo said. "I was kind of surprised about that, particularly in Thousand Oaks. I thought more people would be in favor of the sheriff's deputies."
Mikels, who represents Simi Valley, said the only call to her office was from the brother of a sheriff's deputy who said officers are already overpaid.
"It seems to me that they've spent a heck of a lot of money on nothing," she said. "The public is not stupid. They understand this is a labor union. It doesn't have anything to do with public safety. It has to do with benefits and salary."
Labor chief Glen Kitzmann defended the campaign as a way to get out the union's belief that supervisors are not treating them fairly in negotiations. Kitzmann pointed to a union-commissioned poll showing strong support for the deputies' demands as proof that a wider county audience is on their side.
"They can say we're wasting money if they want," he said. "What else are we going to do--sit back and work without a contract for a year or so?"
Sheriff's deputies patrol Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Camarillo, Fillmore, Ojai and the county's unincorporated areas. They earn between $41,939 and $58,552 annually, depending on experience, and are entitled to 50% of their pay as a pension after 25 years.
Contract talks stalled in May over the deputies' demand for a new wage package.
County negotiators offered a 4% pay hike, but deputies want a guarantee that salaries will rise whenever pay for law enforcement in surrounding cities and counties goes up. Union leaders are also asking the county to offer expanded retirement benefits.
In the past two years, more than 100 law enforcement agencies across the state have won approval for a new retirement benefit called 3% at 50. It allows officers to retire at age 50 with a monthly stipend that equals 3% of earnings for every year of service.
Ventura and Oxnard police departments have already approved the benefit and Simi Valley's force is preparing to ask for it, Kitzmann said. The Sheriff's Department has already lost several deputies to other agencies and will continue to do so if benefits do not keep pace, he said.
But county officials contend it is easier for cities, who have seen years of rising sales tax revenue, to offer generous retirement benefits. In Ventura County, large shopping malls are confined to cities and, as a result, county supervisors have less money to spread around.
Battle lines were drawn, Kitzmann said, when the county went to court to stop the deputies' request for an arbitrator to settle the matter. After that, the union hired a labor consultant and launched its media campaign.
Kitzmann has publicly castigated the Board of Supervisors on several occasions, saying it has backed out of a promise to make public safety the No. 1 priority of county government. The ads in newspapers, radio and local cable television accuse supervisors of treating deputies unfairly and urge the public to contact elected leaders. The union is also sending out mailers and attaching doorknob fliers in selected communities, Kitzmann said. Union leaders are prepared to spend more if necessary, he said.
"We've tapped into our savings," Kitzmann said. "I would much rather use that money for other member benefits. But this is of major importance to us."
So far only one supervisor, Schillo, has publicly stated support for the retirement plan. But Schillo said the deputies should have to contribute to the hefty cost, estimated at $45 million initially and roughly $3.5 million annually after that.
Kitzmann points to a $360-million surplus in the county's retirement fund as evidence that the money is there. But county chief executive Johnny Johnston argues that money must be shared with other county employees.
The county's largest union, the 4,200-member Service Employees International Union, Local 998, is also asking for better retirement benefits. The accountants, typists, social workers and planners who make up that group have threatened to strike if they do not receive better wages and benefits.
The county has scheduled another negotiating session with SEIU leaders next week, but is still at an impasse with the deputies group. Kitzmann warned that things could get even uglier if county leaders do not relent soon.
"They say we are resorting to bullying tactics?" Kitzmann asked. "Well, they haven't seen hardball yet."