The Milpitas City Council approved over $2 million in raises over 3 years for City employees on August 4. The raises are part of an agreement between the Milpitas Employees Association — a union that represents 52 City employees across the City’s public works department — and the City.
Such moves are usually welcome news for both employees and residents, but the vote’s timing — during a pandemic and without major discussion from the council — has raised some concerns among community members…
The raise proposal was placed on the council’s consent calendar portion of its August 4 agenda on the same night when the council authorized a quarter-cent tax measure proposal to appear on November’s ballot.
Items on the consent calendar are considered “routine,” and are voted on in one motion, with no discussion. The practice of placing wage agreements there is not atypical, as other contracts have appeared on the consent calendar in past meetings, and as a matter of course labor negotiations occur in closed session meetings with the council, according to City Manager Steve McHarris.
The item appeared again on this past Tuesday’s agenda for final approval, again placed on the consent calendar. However, in that instance Vice Mayor Bob Nuñez elected to pull the item from the calendar to ask City staff about an amendment to the item that adjusted some of the agreed-upon salary ranges for MEA workers.
Items are allowed to be pulled from the consent calendar with council approval should it wish to discuss a given item in further detail.
“It’s important to me, and I think to the public, that when it has to do with salary increases, if we could look to put those [items] not on the consent calendar and put [them] out so there actually can be public comment,” said Nuñez.
The item went on to pass unanimously.
The major component of the agreement is a 3-year contract with an adjustment of 6 percent effective July 5, a 3 percent wage adjustment effective July 4, 2021, a 3 percent wage adjustment effective July 3, 2022, and almost $60,000 in increased health care benefits, according to a City memo.
The City also agreed to spend approximately $5,600 to purchase a Gerber or Leatherman brand multitool for all MEA members.
The MEA’s wage agreement with the City expired in June, making it the only 1 out of the City’s 5 unions without a contract.
The city’s 4 other unions — police, fire, management, and technical employees — all have contracts that last beyond 2020, according to McHarris.
The move has drawn criticism on social media among residents, former residents, and former City officials who felt a raise should not have been approved during a pandemic. There was also opposition to greenlighting the raises while approving a tax measure to appear on the upcoming ballot.
“It [the wage increase] should’ve been mentioned. But they [the council] slid it in. It looks bad,” said former Milpitas Mayor Pete McHugh in an interview with The Beat.
The raises, however, have been on the City’s mind since the spring, according to McHarris and the City’s Finance Director Walter Rossmann. Negotiations for the newest agreement began with the union in April, Rossmann said. These were agreed upon by the union in July and brought to the council at the August 4 date, the first public meeting after the council’s July recess.
McHarris defended the pay hike, stating that the raises will go to public works employees who have been “hit the hardest” by the pandemic and the 2007-09 Great Recession:
“A lot of cities were devastated [by the Great Recession], but this group [the MEA] really was. They got hit very hard. From then to now it’s taken them this much time for them to catch up to where they think they should be. And the City was very sensitive to that,” McHarris said.
McHarris also asserted that the agreement will put public works employees on the same level as the other 4 unions in the City…
“We want all of our groups to be treated fairly,” said McHarris. “We wanted to be respectful of what they do for us and their relationship with the other 4 employee groups. With them all in parity, they’re all on the same-level playing field.”
He added, “The City staff is our brand, really. We really want to make sure that we give our staff all the tools and resources they need to do a spectacular job every day. And I know they’re out there doing that hard work.”
The tax measure proposal, also approved on August 4, will place a quarter-cent sales tax increase proposal on the November 3 ballot. If approved by a simple majority of voters, the measure will increase the City’s overall tax rate from 9 to 9.25 percent, generating an estimated $6.5 million annually for the city (and remaining in effect for 8 years).
The City of Milpitas faces an $11 million budget shortfall this year, partly due to a reduction in hotel tax revenues because of the pandemic, according to the City’s finance department.
Both the finance department and the council conceded that “deep cuts” will have to be made to the City budget if new revenue doesn’t come in, including a reduction of City services and even laying off City workers as a last resort.
Mayor Rich Tran, who was part of the unanimous vote to implement the MEA raises, called the new contract a “top priority” to keep the city “clean and in good shape.”
“This applies to our professionals who maintain our sewer and water system,” Tran wrote on Facebook. “We can’t fail there and I can’t let that happen.”