Cuts are even; support isn’t
Chico City Council chambers had more color than usual Tuesday evening (May 20). Deep, rich purple. Neon orange. Light green. Greenish yellow. Each hue represented a city employee group that’s rarely as conspicuous as they were this night, when the fate of their families (at home and at work) hung in the balance.
For nearly a year, the three councilmembers on the Finance Committee have wrestled with a budget deficit reaching $6 million a year. City Manager Dave Burkland made a series of cost-cutting recommendations, the most significant of which—slashing each department’s funding—had proved too daunting for the committee to act alone. So the full council of seven faced the dilemma … and a sea of colored T-shirts.
The service-workers union SEIU handed out new purple tees in the lobby. Work crews donned shirts of many colors, all with “City of Chico” and the municipal logo over their hearts. Firefighters and police officers came in street clothes and made their presence more subtle than in committee meetings.
The deliberation came down to two options: cut 7.5 percent across the board, or take only 5 percent from public safety, requiring every other department to absorb 12.5-percent reductions.
Vice Mayor Ann Schwab joined Councilman Larry Wahl in supporting the latter. But Mayor Andy Holcombe, ex-Mayor Scott Gruendl and Councilmembers Tom Nickell, Mary Flynn and Steve Bertagna chose the uniform option, and the vote earned rousing applause from the worker-heavy crowd.
One of the yellow-clad crew-men was a relative newcomer to Chico. He came early, sat in the back and anxiously awaited the budget decision.
The stakes for him were high: Low on the totem pole, he knew he’d be a casualty of a 12.5 percent hit. So worried about layoffs was he that he asked to remain anonymous, though his public-works family and boss Kirby White will know him from his tale.
He moved from the Bay Area nine months ago to take a job with the city. That means he has three months left in his probationary period. He has a household to support, including a seriously ill child for whom he’s had to buy a separate insurance policy.
After January’s windstorm, his team worked 10-hour shifts for 14 straight days and “put our families on the back burner for the city of Chico” while clearing debris from properties, gutters and roads. He appreciates police and fire, but “if you think about it, we are public safety"—removing hazards, maintaining the sewer system, cleaning pollutants out of drains.
“We all work together,” he said of city employees. “It’s just that some of us get recognized more than others.”
Indeed, as Schwab and Wahl pointed out, public safety ranked first among the concerns of citizens who participated in a recent city survey. (Parks and potholes followed.)
That stat may be a bit misleading, though. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” Flynn said, “and one of the things that occurred to me is services provided by the police and fire departments are very visible, but services provided by General Services [i.e. public works] are more … opaque. That’s one thing the survey hasn’t been able to capture.”
Nor could numbers and charts capture the human costs of cuts. “Percentages are cold and hard,” Wahl said; they represent actual people who provide actual services. That’s why cutting back on police in particular concerned him so much—and why his colleagues decried the artificial quality of a formula approach.
The most vehement was Gruendl, the Finance Committee chairman, who blasted both the circumstances and City Hall’s response.
For a few moments following the 11 public speakers (all employees, including union reps), the councilmembers leafed through their budget reports in silence. Gruendl expressed appreciation for the comments, then unloaded a barrage of his own.
“I have never been as frustrated as I am now as a public official. I was elected to make hard decisions. For me, part of that is prioritizing. What’s important to the public is public safety. The public was very clear that they don’t want us to balance the budget on the backs of public safety.”
So he worked through myriad scenarios to find a way to balance the budget without crippling other departments. He couldn’t, even though he has experience in this regard as public-health director for Glenn County. Gruendl said he just submitted his 16th departmental budget and hasn’t had to lay off anyone to offset a $1.6 million deficit.
“We can’t do things the way we’ve always done them,” he pointedly declared. “I changed the way we do business [in his county department]. It’s about reforming government.”
Still, faced with the options, he begrudgingly supported the equitable cuts as an immediate, initial measure. “I’m willing to make that compromise now,” he barked, “but I am going to ask a lot in return.”
Holcombe, Bertagna, Flynn and Nickell expressed comparable opinions. Wahl characteristically dissented, rolling out a list of other ideas: pay reductions, outsourcing, scheduling and overtime changes, and a two-tiered compensation system. “Unless we’ve addressed those things, we haven’t done our job,” concluded Wahl, the Finance Committee’s lone conservative.
Schwab, realizing the vote wouldn’t be unanimous, decided to go with Wahl. “I heard a lot of talk about teamwork,” she said, “but I also know that as a councilmember I don’t necessarily need to be part of the team. I need to be a representative of the people who elected me.”
Those people, she explained afterward, aren’t unions who might contribute to her re-election campaign this fall. “I’m being consistent with my values; if that’s being political, that’s being political. I ran the last time saying police and fire are important, and my voting record has reflected that.”