EL PASO -- If City Council moves to furlough police officers in order to balance the budget, it could end up in a legal fight.
Sgt. Ron Martin, president of the police union, said the union would challenge any measure to force police officers to take unpaid leave.
"If the city of El Paso attempts to furlough police officers, there will be legal action," Martin said. "I hope it doesn't get to that because I'd rather have the guys on the streets working."
City Manager Joyce Wilson said that she isn't concerned about any legal actions that might be taken. "There is nothing in the contract that precludes furloughs," she said.
The El Paso police union voted last week to not reopen its contract to negotiation. The city wanted to delay a 2 percent cost of living increase that is due on Sept. 1.
"I think we were all hoping that they would be more willing to work with us and defer their raise because we never said 'we're not going to give you the raise,' we just wanted them to defer it until June," city Rep. Emma Acosta said.Mayor John Cook said the City Council now faces several choices, including raising taxes, canceling a police academy class or implementing the furlough for police officers.
Cook said that not adding police officers through the academy would have a longer-term impact on the force, but he also worried that furloughs would increase response times to lower priority calls and impact citizen's satisfaction with the Police Department.
"I do know it will have a negative impact on response times. It's a tremendous amount of time to be short officers," Cook said. "It's going to be a tough decision that the council is going to have to make Tuesday."
City Council will take up the budget again Tuesday after cutting $3.5 million through several austerity measures, such as withholding raises from nonpublic-safety employees for a second year and by not filling about 10 vacant positions. The council is looking to cut an additional $1 million to balance the budget.
"Given where we're at right now with the budget, we're actually in a pretty good place," Wilson said.
However, she said the city is at a point where any further cuts that exclude police would result in a reduction of services.
Acosta said that she can't see raising property taxes. She would rather nonessential quality-of-life services like libraries or parks be trimmed back before either raising taxes or implementing a furlough.
For city Rep. Steve Ortega, further cuts into public services are not feasible, although he said he is committed to not reducing the number of police officers on the street.
"Last week we made about $3.5 million in cuts and many of those cuts came from quality-of-life areas, so I think those cuts are over with," Ortega said. "As we move forward, the discussion is going to be how can we maintain the community's safety in a manner that is responsible to the taxpayer's dollars?"
The city of El Paso is far from alone in its struggle to trim its budget.
Across the nation, municipalities looking to trim expenses have sidelined police officers and firefighters, along with other municipal employees, with furloughs.
Dallas, New Orleans and San Bernardino, Calif., are just a few of the communities that are likely to impose furloughs for the next fiscal year.Prince George's County, Md., has given police officers and other city workers 10 unpaid days of furlough for the past two years, but eliminated the furlough in its budget for next year.
Police unions and others sued the county for the first round of furloughs in 2009, arguing that it violated their contract rights.
They suffered a major defeat in court on June 23, however, when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the U.S. District Court's earlier decision that the furloughs had violated workers' labor contracts.
Judge Robert B. King of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the court's opinion that the county had the right to furlough employees in certain fiscal circumstances and that the unions "were free to protect any economic or financial expectancy with regard to wages and hours" by prohibiting furloughs in their collective bargaining agreement, but had failed to do so.
"In essence, therefore, the Unions are simply asking for the benefit of a contract provision that was left on the bargaining table," King wrote.
John Hall may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6371. Copyright 2010 El Paso Times, a MediaNews Group Newspaper
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