Dark days

Drastic budget cuts lie before City Council

City Manager Brian Nakamura.

City Manager Brian Nakamura.

file photo by robert speer

“This probably is the darkest time for the city of Chico.”

Those were the words of City Manager Brian Nakamura toward the end of the City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday (June 4) as he led into an announcement that the city would be revealing a draft budget the following day, in advance of a budget-info forum this Friday (June 7) and the annual all-day budget session that’s scheduled for June 18.

And based on Nakamura’s comments at this week’s meeting, the session a few weeks out is going to be painful for everyone involved, including the council, which has the final say on approving a draft budget that includes dozens of employee layoffs.

“The task for the council is not going to be easy,” he said.

Released mid-morning Wednesday, the 333-page document contains a long introduction attempting to put the far-reaching cuts into context. It notes, for example, how the city has done its best to provide services during “one of the most difficult financial times ever experienced.”

As proposed by Nakamura, the draft budget reduces city operational spending by about $1 million, from $83.8 million to $82.6 million. By far, the deepest cuts are in capital spending, from $48 million in fiscal year 2012-13 to a proposed $22.8 million in 2013-14. The total proposed budget is set at $105 million, a $29.5 million reduction from last year’s $134 million total budget.

Nakamura’s plan seeks to eliminate the city’s annual $4.8 million budget deficit as well as pay back certain depleted funds that have been used in recent years to balance the books.

To do so, he is recommending numerous layoffs of city personnel. As of deadline, the total number of layoffs was unclear (Nakamura was not available for clarification as of deadline). However, it appears at least 28 positions are in jeopardy. This includes reductions in public-safety staffing levels—19 altogether (one lieutenant, three sergeants, 10 police officers, three community-service officers, an admin assistant and an animal-control supervisor). Five vacant positions in the Fire Department will be eliminated under the plan.

Elsewhere, reductions include four positions in the Administrative Services Department, which includes one vacant position; leaving one vacancy in the City Attorney’s Office unfilled; the elimination of three positions in the City Manager’s Office; and eliminating one post and leaving 2.5 vacancies in the Community Development Department.

The cuts in the Police Department will be felt around the city in a variety of ways, including delayed or canceled responses to property crime, public nuisance and civil matters, and potentially to critical incidents, the report notes.

Nakamura said as much during the meeting.

“There are going to be service reductions—that’s unavoidable,” he said.

The city manager wasn’t the only one to speak about the city’s budget during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Rumors of sweeping layoffs had been circulating for days and, just before Nakamura spoke to the budget, a few employees had their say during the business-from-the-floor portion of the meeting, the time during which anyone is able to speak about any matter.

James Erven, a maintenance worker in the General Services Department, said eight employees in his department, which houses the Park and Operations and Maintenance divisions, were getting pink-slipped. He said the consequences will be dramatic because, without these workers, the city will not be able to respond adequately to infrastructure and other emergencies, such as fallen trees or large limbs.

“I can’t imagine this is something the public would be content with,” he said of the potential layoffs.

Erven was echoed by Chris Bolshazy, a representative of the Trades and Crafts Unit of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 46 city workers.

“These are the folks who provide the infrastructure to the city,” he said.

In moving forward, Bolshazy urged the council to “lead by example.” He tried to subtly suggest that those in management reduce their own compensation packages, but then very bluntly got to his point.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow when we look at the top three managers getting between 20 to 30 percent increases over former managers,” said Bolshazy, pointing to the fact that Nakamura, Assistant City Manager Mark Orme, and Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin make significantly more than their predecessors.

Nakamura later indicated there were some positive signs in the local economy. He was referring to rebounding housing, stabilizing property tax and sales tax revenues, as well as a rise in construction permits. He made it clear, however, that the city, even in more fiscally solvent times, needs to be cautious with its spending.

“The key is to be able to do the right thing, even when nobody’s looking,” he said.