Budget blues

Reductions hit public agencies all over town

If one story dominated local news this week, it was about the disastrous state of local agencies’ budgets.

At Chico State University noontime Tuesday (April 8), President Paul Zingg hosted an “all-campus fight-back meeting” in the student-union auditorium designed to rally the 800 people present—teachers, students, staff and two members of the CSU Board of Trustees—to “fight for California’s future” by resisting the $386 million in proposed cuts to the CSU system in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008-09 budget. Similar rallies are being held on other CSU campuses.

Over at City Hall that same day, members of the City Council’s Finance Committee held a 3 1/2-hour meeting to discuss City Manager Dave Burkland’s proposals for cutting $4.6 million from the city budget by, among other things, implementing a 7.5 percent across-the-board cut in every department. Then, on Wednesday morning, the committee met again to discuss cutting funding for community-based organizations by an overall 12 percent, the amount recommended by Burkland.

Meanwhile, at Chico Unified School District offices, the financial mavens were gearing up for a special meeting Wednesday evening at which the Board of Trustees would take up a list of 33 reductions proposed by Superintendent Kelly Staley to cut the budget by $2.8 million. The district is facing a possible shortfall of $8.5 million, nearly eight times the $1.1 million deficit in 2005 that forced the closure of two schools.

For the state universities, the proposed cuts would come on top of $500 million in reductions made in 2002-04 that already have resources stretched thin, said one speaker, Susan Green, president of the local chapter of the California Faculty Association.

The amount to be cut, $386 million, would translate into course reductions, increased class sizes, and longer times to graduation, opponents say. Student fees would go up again, teachers would be laid off, workloads would go up, and support services such as advising and counseling would be less available.

Access would also diminish, as room for as many as 10,000 students, many of them from underserved populations, would no longer be available.

“California isn’t the seventh-largest economy in the world by accident,” Zingg said. Its higher-education master plan developed in 1960 “accommodated the baby boomers who went on to create Silicon Valley, the health-care industry, the entertainment industry” and all the other economic engines that drive the state. The investment has paid off many times over, he said.

Cutting higher education would be foolish, he insisted. He urged attendees to become active, to join the newly formed Alliance for the CSU, to join the student-led “March for Higher Education” April 21 in Sacramento, and to do whatever they can to let legislators and the governor know they want more money put into higher education, not less.

No action was taken at Tuesday’s city Finance Committee meeting, Jennifer Hennessey, the city’s finance director, reported. After discussing Burkland’s proposals, Councilmembers Mary Flynn, Scott Gruendl and Larry Wahl decided to wait until they had more specifics from the various departments before making their recommendations.

Among the more controversial, and potentially difficult, recommendations is one calling for limiting employee cost-of-living adjustments to just 1 percent in 2009 and 2010. That would result in savings of $2.3 million but would require concessions from employee unions.

Burkland is also calling for staff reductions—four positions in fire, six in police, five in management, and so forth. These would result in decreased service—fewer cops downtown and in the south campus area; fewer firefighters on each shift; fewer lifeguards at Sycamore Pool; and so forth. Street repairs would be limited to “worst pavement” conditions and sidewalk repairs to “trip and fall” situations.

The committee will take up the budget recommendations again at its April 22 meeting.

To say that the CUSD is in fiscal crisis is understatement. As Staley said of her recommendations in a memo to all CUSD employees, “This is certainly not what I had in mind when I went into education.”

Her proposals are wide-ranging and drastic: Close Cohasset and Forest Ranch elementary schools and bus students to Chico. Eliminate the optional sixth-grade programs at junior highs. Cut high school athletics and eliminate all freshman sports. Eliminate five custodial positions. Cut counseling, groundskeeping, HVAC maintenance, extra pay assignments (drama, newspapers, Academic Decathlon), elementary pull-out band and choir. The list has something for everyone to dislike.

Even with all these cuts, the money doesn’t quite reach the district’s inherent shortfall of $3 million, much less the $8.5 million deficit it will face if the governor’s budget is passed. “Clearly, we still have work to do,” Staley writes.

Meanwhile, she and the rest of the CUSD community, like Zingg and the university community, have no choice but to wait for the other shoe—the final state budget—to drop.