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CC Times Borenstein Cites Richmond City Council Aversion to Layoffs

Daniel Borenstein: The pain only gets worse with time for the Richmond City Council

MediaNews columnist

Posted: 09/20/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

 

NO ONE likes layoffs. They traumatize those who lose their jobs. They depress morale among those who survive. But the consequences of inaction are often worse, forcing cuts elsewhere or deeper reductions later. That's why elected leaders must make tough decisions.

Unfortunately, the Richmond City Council doesn't seem to understand that.

Told that they must cut their general fund budget by $9 million, told that they literally have workers with nothing to do, City Council members refused to let anyone go. Told that their redevelopment agency budget must be trimmed immediately by $11 million and that more cuts would be necessary, they also balked at layoffs there.

City Manager Bill Lindsay had warned about the consequences of inaction. "If we don't take steps in very short order, it's something that could snowball," he said. Steve Duran, executive director of the redevelopment agency, issued his own alarm: "We need to take action now because this boat is sinking fast."

It's easy to manage when times are good. The real test comes when revenues come up short. School trustees, transit directors, city council members and county supervisors across the state are struggling with fallout from the economy and vicious budget cuts from Sacramento.

Teacher layoffs have swollen class sizes. Buses run less frequently. Libraries stay open fewer hours. Parks will be closed. The needy have lost basic health services. These are tough times that require difficult decisions.

"I understand layoffs are very painful for everyone involved," said Richmond Councilman Jim Rogers as he and Tom Butt tried unsuccessfully to convince their colleagues to make the hard choices on layoffs. "But I just don't see how we can justify to the taxpayers that we have people on the payroll when our department head has clearly said there's not enough work for them to do." As Rogers pointed out, the longer council members delay the pain, the less money will be available for other basic services like police patrols and fixing potholes.

Here's the situation in Richmond. The city spent $140 million last fiscal year from its general fund. In June, the council approved a $133 million budget for the current 2009-10 fiscal year. But in just a couple of months, the situation has deteriorated greatly. Property and sales tax revenues will be much worse than anticipated. The court-ordered halt to the Chevron refinery upgrade means the company won't contribute nearly $2 million it had otherwise promised the city in a side deal. All told, the council learned this month, the city needs to trim nearly $9 million more from its general fund budget.

Similarly, property tax reductions and state raids require Richmond's redevelopment agency to trim an additional $11 million from its $127 million budget.

There's no magic solution in situations like this. To balance the books, the council must either make cuts now that can be spread out over the entire fiscal year, or make deeper trims later to accomplish the same goal. The longer the overspending goes on, the more severe the pain further down the road.

To head that off, Lindsay proposed a long list of cuts everything from trimming police overtime to reducing library staffing and eliminating a vacant assistant city attorney position that the council backed. The council also supported early retirement offers that Lindsay predicted would eliminate 21 positions and save nearly $900,000.

But he also proposed laying off 24 people to save nearly $1.2 million. And Duran, the redevelopment director, called for eliminating 13 jobs, saving $2.2 million.

The council majority was unwilling to lay anyone off. Instead, those council members directed Lindsay to meet with the unions and try to find ways to avoid job cuts.

Among the proposed general fund layoffs were eight people in the Planning and Building Department who had been assigned to check plans and inspect construction at the Chevron project. The court order, the council was told, meant there was literally no work for those city employees. But the council majority was unwilling to lay them off.

"In my opinion, that's fiscal irresponsibility," Butt said. "Some people have just got a gut aversion to laying anyone off. And some of it is the pressure that the unions put on not to lay anybody off. In my opinion it was just so plain. There were no shades of gray. We just have a bunch of people here with nothing to do."

Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or