Thousands of unionized county workers in purple and yellow T-shirts gathered downtown today to push for raises as the Board of Supervisors considers a proposed $24.7 billion budget for the coming year.
After five years of deficits -- soaring as high as $491.6 million in 2010-11 -- and cuts averaging 15 percent across all county departments, the draft budget for fiscal 2013-14 is balanced, Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka told the board. It relies only on ongoing revenues rather than one-time reserves.
"This is an exceptional story for the county of Los Angeles," Fujioka said, especially when compared with bankruptcies and fiscal crises elsewhere in the state.
County employees, who have gone without a cost of living raise for at least four years, say it's now time.
Lillian Cabral, a Service Employees International Union member, has worked for the county for 35 years and said it would be 11 years before she was eligible to retire with benefits.
"I have sacrificed long enough, living paycheck to paycheck, robbing Paul to pay Peter," Cabral told the board, saying some workers lost their homes to foreclosure, while others were barely hanging on. "Give us what we have sacrificed and worked hard for."
Cabral and others wore T-shirts reading "Turn it Up."
Regina Mims, a clerk for the Sheriff's Department, said "we're 'turning it up' this year to fight for raises."
She was among hundreds of people waiting for access to the board hearing room, carrying flags saying "Pay Raise" and "Past Due.".
Employees say they have been stretched thin, asked to do more work as the county eliminated 2,100 unfilled positions during hard times, though no one was laid off.
"In 2013, come hell or hell water, there will be a raise for SEIU workers," Michael Green, Los Angeles County regional director for SEIU Local 721, told the board today.
"It's important that we recognize the partnership between our labor partners and the county," Supervisor Michael Antonovich said, adding that "we're not out of the woods yet."
Antonovich and Fujioka said the county faced two major challenges in terms of predicting expenses: the impact of the Affordable Care Act on Jan. 1, 2014 and unanticipated costs related to shifting jail populations under Assembly Bill 109.
"The program that was first presented to us is the not program that we are dealing with today," Fujioka said of AB109. Though the ex-convicts released from state prisons have been classified as non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders, some have not lived up to that billing, while a large percentage have significant mental health needs, he said.
But economic growth, lower interest rates and declining caseloads are all expected to contribute to a better overall economic picture for the county. The draft budget assumes about 2.9 percent growth in property tax revenues and a 4 percent increase in sales taxes.
Employees want what they see as their fair share.
SEIU board member David Green said the cost of living had risen 10 percent during the time county workers had gone without a raise. More than half of SEIU Local 721 members earn less than $45,000, Green said, a figure equivalent to what a single parent needs to support two children, according to a research paper he distributed.
"When it comes to money, the facts are clear," Green told the board, citing a "robust reserve of $2.6 billion." "You've got it, we need it."
Perhaps the most aggressive negotiator on behalf of workers was third- grader Kiana Brown, sitting outside the boardroom wearing a T-shirt reading "My mom needs a raise."
One of many children participating in the rally on a day designated as "Bring Your Child to Work Day," Kiana said the demonstrators "want a raise and they want things to be right." Asked how much of a raise her mother should get, she thought for a moment and then said, "100 percent."
Contract negotiations begin in June for SEIU workers. At a news conference yesterday, Fujioka said recent meetings with public safety unions included discussions about possible cost of living increases, but he declined to say more, citing labor negotiations.
Whether or not raises are negotiated, Fujioka laid the groundwork today for what may be difficult discussions on pension benefits.
"Our current healthcare benefit is not sustainable given the size of the unfunded (pension) liability," Fujioka told the board. Retirement benefits are funded at 77 percent -- a gap representing billions of dollars -- and would have to be looked at "in a very critical way," he said.
More public hearings on the budget are set to begin May 15.
--Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service