SAN JOSE -- Hoping to soothe a bitter labor war with their unions, San Jose leaders on Tuesday announced they would seek a ballot measure to scale back part of the city's landmark pension reform act -- but it does not appear to be the game-changer either side is looking for.
If placed on the November ballot and approved by voters, the new measure would tweak only two parts of the Measure B pension initiative that city voters overwhelmingly approved in 2012. It would allow ex-city employees who quit their jobs to come back under their old benefit plan, and possibly make it easier for police officers and firefighters to get a disability retirement.
"These measures would not change the savings from Measure B, but they would possibly help with retention and recruitment," of cops and other city workers, Mayor Chuck Reed said.
But it would not alter the ongoing court battle between the unions and the city, which is headed to appeals court. And unions immediately dismissed the plan as being too weak, saying it didn't address their broader concerns over the pension reform changes that cut into their paychecks.
"It's refreshing when any politician admits they made a mistake, but Mayor Reed and his City Council majority's fix to their mistake is akin to pouring gasoline on an already raging fire," said Joel Phelan, president of the firefighters union.
More than two years after its passage, Measure B -- a package of reforms that cut retirement benefits for the city's 5,500 employees -- remains a major bone of contention in City Hall. City leaders led by Reed and his City Council allies maintain the measure is crucial to save tens of millions of dollars per year, as retirement costs continue to eat up larger portions of the city budget that pays for basic services. But city workers, especially police officers, have been leaving San Jose for better paying cities, leading to a shortage of cops and bitter tension between staff and city executives.
The proposed changes do not address many of the concerns the labor groups had over Measure B, such as the requirement for current workers to pay more toward their pensions.
"They want to look like they're doing something about the problem that they've created," said Ben Field, head of the South Bay Labor Council. But "it does not solve the public safety crisis -- it will not help the city recruit and maintain police officers."
The plan calls for lowering the bar for cops and firefighters to get a disability retirement so that all public safety workers who are hurt for more than a year would qualify. Previously, Measure B called for those injured workers to also prove they couldn't do a desk job such as dispatcher.
Also under the plan, employees who left the city will have until the end of 2016 to return under their old "tier 1" retirement benefits instead of being hired back under the less generous benefit plan offered to new hires under Measure B. Reed says seven cops have returned to the city recently, but the council and the police union disagree strongly over how many officers would take advantage of the deal.
The labor groups remain focused on electing more favorable candidates they support in the November election, led by mayoral hopeful and county Supervisor Dave Cortese. Labor candidates are also vying for three other City Council seats in November.
The council is on its summer break but held a special closed-session meeting late Friday in which they hammered out the ballot initiative plan, which wasn't disclosed until late Tuesday. Unless the votes on the council change, there is enough support for council members at their Aug. 5 meeting to place the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.