While the theatrics on Salt Lake City's collective bargaining stage are more dramatic this year, the final scene could play out like last year's salary talks between the city's three unions and Mayor Palmer DePaulis.

In that act, DePaulis' reputation as a kinder, gentler mayor dissolved when he vetoed an attempt by the City Council's "Gang of Four" to give employees $600,000 in merit increases by implementing across-the-board budget cuts.With nearly two months left in the collective bargaining season, the cast of this year's production - including angry unions, an entrenched mayor and a calculating council - is possibly rehearsing for a rerun.

In the mayor's $82.2 million budget released last week, DePaulis detailed a salary offer for his 2,100 employees: a 2 percent cost-of-living increase and a 2 percent to 2.75 merit increase, or a $1.5 million total salary increase.

All three unions - representing police officers, firefighters and blue-collar and clerical workers - have rejected the offer and have left the bargaining table. Two unions wrote their feelings on placards and marched around City-County Building grounds during dedication ceremonies last month.

The scene was reminiscent of collective bargaining last year when, irked by the mayor's freeze of merit increases, city police got a bad case of "blue flu" and boycotted work for a day. Later that year, disgruntled firefighters picketed DePaulis' annual Employee Appreciation Day.

But as the 1988 collective bargaining season wore on, DePaulis dug in and resisted pressure from unions to offer his employees more.

When the council scraped the bottom of the budget last year and placed across-the-board cuts in DePaulis' $79 million budget to come up with $600,000 in employee merit increases, DePaulis stamped a veto on the council budget.

The Gang of Four, the majority voting bloc on the council led by Willie Stoler and Florence Bittner, didn't get their budget and the unions didn't get their wage increase.

As the curtain rises this year, the labor scenario looks similar. Although DePaulis has offered a 4.75 percent composite increase, unions still are balking and have gone to greater lengths to demonstrate their dissatisfaction.

Salt Lake City Police Association President David Greer has taken center stage in attacking DePaulis. The police union led union job action with picket signs and newspaper ads targeting DePaulis.

Salt Lake police earn an average of $2,350 monthly, compared to the average non-agricultural wage in Salt Lake County of $1,627.

Salt Lake officers rank fifth in the state in salaries paid by municipalities, and Greer can make a good case for the underpaid police officer defending the city from, for example, rising gang-related activity.

Angry over their pay status, Greer sent a toned-down letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee alleging DePaulis may have smeared the union. A USOC representative later denied the union was disparaged by DePaulis.

Greer called the letter "bait" for DePaulis. The mayor said the letter reflected badly on Greer's credibility as a union leader. Such assertions make it hard to conceive the two sides trust each other enough to reach a salary agreement.

Enter the City Council. Stoler has said the mayor's budget will be combed for areas where priorities could be changed to "take care of employees." Already, talk has focused on $100,000 DePaulis set aside for urban forestry as the possible foundation for employee raises.

But DePaulis is content with the budget just the way it is, already asserting that his priorities are straight and that "there just aren't any dollars" for bigger employee raises.

That sets the stage for another budget showdown punctuated by aggressive union tactics, interesting council-mayor dynamics and perhaps another mayoral veto.