Fifteen years ago, Santa Rosa voters opted to give police and firefighters special treatment when it came to bargaining for new contracts.

If city officials and public safety unions ever reached an impasse with contract negotiations, voters decided — by way of Meaure A in 1996 — that the dispute would go to outside arbitration. The neutral party would then choose which side was right based largely on a comparison of benefits paid by comparable cities, and the result would be binding.

This binding arbitration provision was instituted primarily as a give-back to public safety employees for losing the right to strike. It was not provided to any other city employees.

During the past 15 years, no dispute has gone to binding arbitration in Santa Rosa. Nevertheless, it has played a major role in contract negotiations.

Unions contend it has forced the city to be more reasonable. Critics contend it has had a pivotal role in the escalation of public safety pay and retirement benefits and it's the root cause of public safety's growing share of the general fund pie.

Since binding arbitration was approved by 53 percent of voters, police and fire spending — as a share of general fund spending — has grown from less than 44 percent to roughly 60 percent.

Only about 5 percent of California cities have the provision. And many have started to make a change. San Luis Obispo overwhelmingly voted to repeal it on Aug. 30. Palo Alto did the same on Nov. 8. San Jose has significantly altered its provision.

Why? One, because the binding arbitration process is expensive and time-consuming, cities are more likely to make concessions to avoid an impasse, sometimes to the detriment of the city's overall budget picture.

Second, city officials know that an arbiter is not bound to take into consideration whether a city can afford what the unions are asking. Arbiters are only bound to determine whether the union demands are reasonable based on benefits paid by comparable cities.

This is why a number of community leaders, including past Santa Rosa mayors and City Council members, are now encouraging the city's Charter Review Committee to recommend that the binding arbitration provision be put to voters again.

We agree. With tax revenues having plummeted and with the city facing a $100 million unfunded liability problem due to runaway retirement benefits, something needs to change. With contracts set to expire for police next summer and for firefighters the year after, the city is unlikely to achieve any significant progress in controlling costs as long as binding arbitration remains on the books in its present form.

We will reserve judgment on whether it should be revoked or reworded until we hear the arguments presented during a campaign. But the evidence is significant enough at this point to at least warrant putting it on the ballot.

We encourage the charter review committee to make such a recommendation, and we encourage the Santa Rosa City Council to put it on the ballot in 2012.