Despite pleas from Huntington Beach Councilman Don Hansen to turn down an offer from the police union to extend its contract with some employee concessions, the City Council approved it Monday.
"I think it's a shortsighted and misguided decision, and I think the council has essentially pretty much surrendered any of our negotiating positions to the police union," he said after the vote.
The council voted 4 to 3 to extend the contract, which keeps the Huntington Beach Police Officers Assn.'s pension contribution at 4.25%.
Had the council turned down the association's offer, the contribution would have dropped to 2.25% until the contract would be back up for renewal in March.
Hansen said if the council had waited until March, the city would have had more leverage.
"It's a decision between a short-term patch and a long-term solution, and I feel we were baited into taking a short-term deal at the expense of a true fix to a flawed pension system," Hansen said.
A week before the council meeting, Hansen sent out a mass email, dubbing it an "action alert," in opposition to extending the association's contract.
In his email, Hansen urged Huntington Beach residents to ask the council to vote against the extension, saying it locks the city in for another two years without establishing a new retirement tier.
"We should not miss an opportunity to create a second-tier retirement program," Hansen said in an interview. "Unless we put that in the agreement now, we're essentially giving up any chances of doing so until late 2013."
On the other hand, Councilman Joe Shaw emailed residents asking them to think about what the city might lose if the current offer was rejected.
He warned that Huntington Beach could become the next Costa Mesa, which has given layoff notices to more than 200 employees, if the council did not consider the savings offered by the police association.
"What Don wants is a confrontation, so we can have an ideological battle like what's happening in Costa Mesa," Shaw said before the meeting. "I don't want that. I don't want to disrespect our employees. I want us to get something now and keep the concessions we have so we can build on that."
While establishing a new retirement tier is the wave of the future, association President Kreg Muller said it would not be wise at this time because it could prevent Huntington Beach from attracting experienced officers, especially when the city is getting ready to hire three new cops.
"We don't want to hire entry-level officers," Muller said. "We're a destination for careers at this point. We compete with Santa Ana, Anaheim, Irvine and those types of locations."
Asked if that argument could be made at any time to avoid establishing a new retirement system, Muller disagreed.
Police Chief Ken Small also said he was against adopting a new retirement tier.
"If we have a two-tier retirement system in place today, I think it would adversely impact our ability to hire lateral police officers," Small said before the meeting.
Hansen and Shaw agree that a second tier must be established, but they disagree on how.
"We're not negotiating a new contract," Shaw said. "We're negotiating concessions from the current contract so we can balance the budget. So, I believe we will get to a second tier. It's just not going to happen this time."
The city has been in discussions with all of its employee groups in an effort to find ways to reform and cut compensation costs. Before Monday's vote, the council had not approved any concessions except for the city manager and departments heads, who have agreed to incrementally increase their share of the pension costs.
Hansen said the council's vote will set a precedent and determine what other groups offer.
The police association offered to continue contributing 4.25% through 2013, take on the anticipated increase in medical costs and suspend the fitness pay provision, which gives officers deemed physically fit 60 hours of paid time off each year. The hours expire at the end of the year if unused.
While public employees' benefits seem too generous at a time when many Americans are out of jobs and the economy continues to struggle, it is difficult to drastically reform a system that has been in place for many decades, Shaw said.
Until the economic downturn, public agencies were benefiting from the current system because 75% of pensions came from investment returns, Muller said.
"We don't want our council to engage in things that they're doing strictly for being popular and political," he said, adding that his association is disappointed with Hansen's stance.
In addition to Hansen, Councilmen Matthew Harper and Devin Dwyer voted against the contract extension.
—City Editor Michael Miller contributed to this story.