Swinging at the pay-cut piñata

Art Sweatman has trimmed trees for the city of Los Angeles for 13 years, and sometimes he hauls them away after they’ve fallen on cars or blocked roads and sidewalks. It took him 10 years to get to his current annual salary of $54,000, and now city officials are saying they need him and other workers to take a 10% to 15% pay cut to eliminate a $485-million deficit.

Pay cuts for city workers: A caption with a photo that accompanied Steve Lopez’s column in the March 10 Section A about proposed pay cuts for Los Angeles city employees referred to Michael Hunt as a city worker. Hunt, who was shown in the photo receiving cheers from the audience after addressing the L.A. City Council, is not employed by the city. —

Better a tough pay cut than up to 4,000 layoffs, right?

Last week, I would have said yes without much thought. In this economy, anyone drawing a paycheck has to count himself lucky, even if the take-home ain’t what it used to be.

But on Tuesday morning I met with Sweatman and other city employees, and their union reps, and they explained how they see the numbers a little differently.

“We don’t deny there’s a crisis,” said Victor Gordo, an attorney with a coalition of six city unions that represent more than 20,000 employees who run rec centers, maintain roads and streetlights and work as librarians, among other professions.

But Gordo and his colleagues blame City Hall for being slow to implement reforms suggested by the coalition, and for failing to produce reliable numbers or a coherent plan.

And guess what:

There’s some truth to that.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was often missing in action as the financial storm gathered, distracted by other pursuits, and the City Council didn’t exactly fill the void in a town where it’s often not clear who’s in charge.

And then suddenly, early this year, the mayor and council members began taking turns throwing numbers around. In a span of two months, we’ve heard that 1,000 layoffs might be necessary, followed shortly thereafter by 2,000, then 3,000. Now the City Council says it needs to ax 4,000 workers.

If not layoffs, we were told, we’d need to slash pay by 5% -- no, make that 10%, or maybe even 15%. It has looked, at times, like they’re throwing darts.

Then there’s the matter of the handsome pay increases recently given employees of the Department of Water and Power, with unanimous support of the mayor and City Council. It’s not clear to me -- or to the coalition members -- why the already well-compensated DWP workers got a raise that will put an executive secretary above $100,000 a year, while a tree trimmer gets whacked down under $50,000.

“It’s a mystery,” said Madeleine Kerr, a children’s librarian at the Los Feliz branch.

Kerr said she’d be willing to make sacrifices, but not before she sees evidence that someone at City Hall has a long-range plan. She wants to know what a pay cut would accomplish in terms of job security, and what the commitment is to library services and to the families that are relying on them more now than ever.

“They don’t say if you do this, this is what will happen,” said Kerr, who also works part time for a Beverly Hills library to help pay off her student loans.

Sweatman noted that he and other employees have already taken the equivalent of a 6% pay cut by going on furlough two days a month, and by contributing to the cost of an early retirement program that will eventually take 2,400 city employees off the payroll. So his $54,000 is now closer to $50,000, and a 15% cut on top of that would take him to $42,500.

“I’d jump out of a tree,” Sweatman said, when I asked what he’d do.

Understandable, but if he breaks his leg, he can take comfort in a healthcare deal that private sector employees can only envy, with no premiums for certain discount plans. Non-government employees, meanwhile, are paying more for less coverage.

City Council President Eric Garcetti, who knows the budget as well as anyone, told me some of the claims by the Coalition of L.A. City Unions are legit. Among employee groups, he said, the coalition has “been the most creative and the most productive” player, pushing its ideas for more aggressive debt collection, for example, and agreeing to a 2,400-employee reduction through early retirement.

Unfortunately, he said, 85% to 90% of total city costs are for employees, so that’s where the bulk of the additional cuts have to be made. Garcetti said he’d rather not have thousands of layoffs that devastate employees and their families and radically alter the quality of life in Los Angeles. So that means cuts to employee salaries, pensions (they don’t get Social Security), bonuses, overtime and healthcare coverage.

Garcetti disputed the coalition claim that it has made budget-solving proposals the city isn’t seriously considering.

“I’ve yet to see a rabbit anyone can pull out of a hat to take $485 million down to $100 million or $150 million. It isn’t out there,” Garcetti said.

Now would be a good time for coalition members to produce a detailed budget plan that saves their jobs and keeps any cuts in compensation, or city services, to a minimum.

They told me they’re working on one, as we speak.