City budget

Committee gets ready to act—finally

For more than six months, city officials have been talking about and listening to citizens’ ideas for solving the city’s long-term budget deficit, but as members of the Finance Committee—with Mayor Andy Holcombe sitting in for Councilwoman Mary Flynn—acknowledged Monday night (Nov. 19), they haven’t actually done anything.

As Bob Best, a budget watchdog who’s a regular at these meetings, put it, “We’ve been at this since June, and I’m not sure we’re one step further along.”

That is about to change, however.

Monday’s meeting was the last of three interactive sessions designed to educate the public about city finances and get citizens’ ideas about the budget. The committee will meet again Nov. 27 to begin making its decisions and will present its recommendations to the City Council at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The city projects its general-fund budget to begin dipping into the red soon—a trend that, if it continues, will result in at least a $56 million deficit in 10 years, though some, like Best, think it will be much higher.

The name of the game Monday was looking for clues to what the committee will recommend based on what was said during the meeting. For example, a presentation on collective bargaining made it clear that the city couldn’t do much about the generous pay-and-benefits packages it just agreed to give firefighters over the next six years. (The police contract, up for renewal, includes a “me, too” clause granting CPD officers some of the perks awarded to the CFD.)

There was considerable discussion of why the firefighters, for example, will get a 5 percent pay hike next year and a 4 percent hike every year after that, for a compounded total in excess of 25 percent—far more than the rate of inflation. Not mentioned was the fact that firefighters have gotten raises totaling 40.1 percent since 2000.

Apparently it’s impossible to get a new contract that costs less than the old contract. Because the city wanted to eliminate three battalion chief positions, it had to “give” the union something in return, said Dan Fulks, the city’s human resources director—thus the generous raises.

Councilman Scott Gruendl did agree with critics who charge the city’s labor-negotiation process lacks transparency. He suggested it would be helpful for the council to explain the negotiation process publicly before voting on any future contract.

There was also discussion of the hefty amount of overtime going to some public-safety employees, especially firefighters. City salary figures posted Nov. 9 on the Enterprise-Record’s Web site and, a day earlier, on Lon Glazner’s “Commission Impossible” blog, reveal that because of overtime several firefighters, captains mostly, earned so much they made more than department heads.

The third-highest pay in the city, $179,142, went to a fire captain, ahead even of the fire chief himself, who earned $168,209. When it came to collecting overtime, the top 39 recipients—earning from $25,352 to $78,315 in OT pay—worked for either the Fire Department (30 employees) or the Police Department (nine employees).

The city also contributes an amount equal to 53 percent of firefighters’ base salaries and 69 percent of cops’ salaries to their benefits packages.

Overtime isn’t covered by labor contracts, Gruendl pointed out, so the committee would be looking at it carefully on Nov 27. The problem, he said, is that it’s sometimes cheaper to use overtime for staffing than to hire new people and pay for their benefits.

The committee also will be looking at “coverage,” he said, meaning how many firefighters are in the stations at any given time.

There was also some discussion of an increase in the sales tax—of, say, a quarter-percent—as a way to generate significant new revenues. As Best put it, “Let’s face it, it’s going to happen. We need it.”

But another citizen, Mike Reilley, argued that a sales tax hike would hurt local businesses. He cited car buyers, who would be inclined to go to Oroville or Sacramento to save money.

Stay tuned. Somehow, the committee is going to come up with some recommendations on how to balance the city’s budget—and soon.