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Viewpoint: Court's Labor Deal Is Good for Taxpayers and Sacramento
2013-01-04 11:29:44 AM
It is in this vein that I seek to enlighten and inform the critics of San Francisco Superior Court who without the facts have taken issue with recently approved labor contracts for our employees. Here are some "simple truths" of our labor agreements:
Pension reform in these labor agreements saves $4.1 million in reduced retirement costs over the life of the three-year contracts. Employees will pick up these costs, not the taxpayers.
Under the terms of the court's previous contract with SEIU, Local 1021, the employees' portion of pension contributions was capped at 7.5 percent. Under the terms of the new contract, the court successfully negotiated to remove that 7.5 percent cap, which eliminates future costs for the court.
The cost of a one-time $3,500 payment and a 3 percent wage increase on July 1, 2013, are completely offset by reductions in the court's contributions toward pension and employee health care cost increases.
Most San Francisco Superior Court employees have not received a wage increase since July 2008. Even then, this increase was just 2 percent the lowest among the 10 largest courts in California.
At this juncture in the agonizingly persistent economic downturn in California, the court has been assailed at different times for both spending its savings and banking its savings. Just as our court heads down one path to manage the fiscal crisis, news from Sacramento abruptly changes our course.
After the executive and legislative branches of government in California slashed $1.1 billion from the judicial branch, the operations of San Francisco Superior Court are vastly different today than in 2008. Five years ago, the court's budget was $98 million; today it is $74 million. In 2008, the court had 591 employees; today we have just over 400 a 31 percent decrease.
By 2010, court leadership recognized that one-time bailouts from the Judicial Council and reliance on Sacramento's pipe dreams of economic recovery were no way to run a court. The court had a structural deficit, which left two choices: increase revenue or cut costs. The court had already spent its $10 million in savings to keep the courthouse doors open. The court had permanently lost $10.5 million in state funding, which led court leaders to cut spending.
As a result of this fiscal prudence, the court is ahead of the curve compared with other courts just now operationalizing their cuts. Simply put, our sister courts are on a different timeline yet they all are taking similar measures we initiated earlier in the crisis, from pulling official court reporters out of civil proceedings, to laying off court staff, to closing courtrooms and courthouses.
In June 2011, mid-year cuts to the judicial branch plunged the court into immediate planning to lay off 200 employees and close 25 courtrooms. Critics called on the court to spend its $4.6 million in savings to avoid layoffs and closure of civil departments. To avoid a near-collapse of the civil justice system in San Francisco, Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein sought a $2.5 million loan from the Judicial Council. The loan was necessary to pay for expenses, such as payroll and already-received services, including security. These expenses exceeded the amount of cash savings the court had on hand. At the time the court sought the loan, Feinstein presciently predicted that while we were the first court to seek an emergency loan, we certainly would not be the last.
Despite the loan, the court had to reduce expenses to match our reduced level of funding. In October 2011, the court laid off 67 staff and commissioners and closed 11 courtrooms, which led to a courtwide reorganization.
Just nine months later, the governor's May revision to the FY 2012-13 state budget mandated a radical shift in trial court funding, i.e., restricted the authority of trial courts to bank savings after June 30, 2014. By then, the court had accumulated about $12 million in savings, but the new Sacramento-mandated restrictions now prevent the court from banking those funds to offset future budget cuts.
Court leadership immediately made the decision to repay the Judicial Council and then focused on prioritizing the expenditure of our remaining savings on a long list of court needs, from capital purchases to restoring employees' 5 percent pay cut. It remains a goal of the court to reopen closed courtrooms contingent on resources in staffing and judicial appointments.
Just last week, as we announced the long-term pension savings generated by new language in the labor agreements, the court learned of another potential Sacramento policy shift that could rob the trial courts of a promised two-year window to use our reserve. This potential change, while troublesome for all trial courts, does not impact the court's recently approved labor contracts. In fact, the agreements contain a safety valve that subjects the 3 percent wage increase to further discussions between the court and SEIU should Sacramento not fully fund the court yet again.
San Francisco Superior Court is a well-run, fiscally responsible court whose dedicated employees have done their part to assure access to justice and services to San Franciscans.
That is the simple truth.
T. Michael Yuen is the court executive officer of San Francisco Superior Court.
The Recorder welcomes submissions to Viewpoint. Contact Vitaly Gashpar at email@example.com.