CONCORD -- The chair of a fact-finding panel has offered an opinion favoring one of the city's largest unions in its contract dispute with City Hall, according to a report made public Tuesday.
The opinion issued Monday by Carol Vendrillo calls for the city to discontinue its controversial 13-day furlough program, lift a freeze on salary steps and offer wage increases to members of Teamsters Local 856.
City officials say this package would amount to an average pay increase of 12.3 percent this fiscal year for union members. The union's members have worked without a contract since June 30.
"The neutral arbiter report reaffirms what we have been saying for six months," said Peter Finn, vice president of the union. "We're hopeful the City Council takes control of the process."
The ruling follows months of contentious contract talks that began when the 150-member union voted overwhelmingly to join the more aggressive Teamsters, who have fought city negotiators to restore contract concessions made since the economy plummeted in 2009.
When negotiations reached an impasse last year, the two sides agreed to take their cases to a neutral, hand-picked panelist provided under state law. The three-member fact-finding panel also included Finn, who represented the union, and city representative Kay Winer, the interim assistant city attorney. Finn concurred with the ruling, while Winer dissented.
The arguments were heard over five days by financial experts on each side, Interim City Manager Valerie Barone and former Mayor Guy Bjerke. The union argued that the city's general fund balance increased by $10.9 million over the previous year -- money that could be used to compensate employees. The union said its members have taken a cut of 19 percent since 2009, a figure that factors in increases in the Consumer Price Index.
The city has said Vendrillo's opinion disregards its 10-year fiscal planning process and would shift funds from its fiscal reserve and increase its structural deficit, possibly putting services and city jobs in jeopardy. Since 2009, Concord has reduced its workforce by 119 positions, including eight layoffs.
"The chair's recommendations are so out of touch with the reality of Concord's finances that we were shocked," Winer said in a statement.
In the same statement, Mayor Dan Helix said the city respects and appreciates the concessions its employees have made, "but the bottom line is that the city simply cannot afford to give them a 12 percent increase in compensation without jeopardizing the fiscal stability of the city."
The City Council is set to discuss the fact-finding report in a closed-session meeting Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. The report is not binding but will be used as the two sides move forward with continued negotiations. Barone said she is hopeful a resolution can be reached.
Finn said the recommendation "carries significant weight."
"It appears the city is continuing to ignore reality to the bitter end," Finn said.
David DeBolt covers Concord and Clayton. Contact him at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.