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Think hard before tipping the balance

The safety of police officers and firefighters is the stated motivation for Senate Bill 400, which comes up for a floor vote in the Oregon Senate next week.

Underlying that legitimate safety concern, however, is a less obvious contest between unions and public agencies, both of which are trying to gain advantage at the bargaining table.

Senate Bill 400 would give greater negotiating power to unions representing police officers and firefighters, upsetting the bargaining equilibrium that now exists between management and these key unions. Because this legislation does tip the balance toward unions and could potentially decrease local control, we believe it is in need of further discussion and amendment prior to being approved by either legislative chamber.

Long-running battle

Police and fire unions have been working for years to undo safety-related language in 1995's Senate Bill 750, which overhauled Oregon's laws governing collective bargaining in the public sector. Under the 1995 legislation, issues of safety can be raised during collective bargaining only if they have 'a direct and substantial effect' on job safety. The clause was restrictively written to prevent trivial safety issues from intruding into the negotiations process.

However, police and fire union representatives say that the 'direct and substantial' language has proven too great a barrier to them and has prevented them from raising real safety concerns during negotiations. They point to examples of police and fire personnel who are poorly equipped, and they say some agencies are understaffed to the point where adequate backup is not available.

We agree that safety should be one topic of discussion between an employer and its union workers. But the remedy proposed by Senate Bill 400 is too broadly worded. It proposes to change the 'direct and substantial' standard to one that would allow police and fire unions to bargain over staffing levels or any other issue that has a 'potential' impact on both on-the-job safety and employee workload.

Our fear is that the word 'potential' could open up a universe of issues to be negotiated. And if staffing levels are placed on the table, this change eventually could drive up costs for cities such as Gresham that have no ability to raise revenues to pay for more police officers or firefighters.

Cities have no money

Gresham, in fact, provides the perfect case study to demonstrate why lawmakers should tread carefully when considering changes to collective-bargaining laws. The city already spends 89 percent of its general fund dollars on police and fire service. The city's property tax rate is capped by measures 5 and 50, and its taxpayers have shown no willingness to tax themselves further with special levies. If the bargaining laws shift significantly in favor of police and fire unions, thereby increasing costs, the city's only option would be to cut other services to provide more money to police and fire.

Police officers and firefighters differ from other union-represented employees; they cannot strike, which means unresolved contracts must be settled in binding arbitration. No matter what happens with Senate Bill 400, arbitrators still will have to consider a jurisdiction's ability to pay before making a final contract decision. But even with that protection for taxpayers, we believe that an arbitrator's view of a city's ability to pay may differ substantially from the local city council's view.

That's why we believe this bill needs amending before being approved in the Senate. And that's why local legislators, including Gresham Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, must take a long pause and consider the legislation's possible effect on taxpayers. The 1995 law probably should be changed to give greater weight to safety concerns, but the Legislature should not simply accept the language proposed by unions without first balancing it against the needs of cash-strapped cities.