Deep in the red

City officials paint bleak financial picture

Chico Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin after delivering sobering economic news to the Finance Committee.

Chico Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin after delivering sobering economic news to the Finance Committee.

Photo By tom gascoyne

Chris Constantin, Chico’s administrative-services director, and City Manager Brian Nakamura told the city Finance Committee on Tuesday (July 23) that the city’s budget, despite cuts to services, remains on shaky ground.

Nakamura and Constantin were each a bit defensive in the wake of criticism from the public over financial cuts they’ve recommended to department heads that have led to city-employee layoffs and cuts in city services.

Even with the suggested cuts—to park and tree crews, and public safety—the city will not be able to plug the $4.8 million general-fund deficit by the end of the calendar year, as was hoped, they said. At the June 18 all-day City Council budget session, Constantin was asked to look into ways to hire six police officers.

“I tell you now, there is no way that can be done,” he told the Finance Committee, which is made up of Councilmembers Mark Sorensen, Randall Stone and Scott Gruendl.

Constantin said the city could bring on four police positions, which actually means hiring two rookie police officers at base pay and not laying off two community-service officers. Even so, he said, unless the city-employee unions’ bargaining units agree to reduce the city’s share of employee health-care costs and other benefits, the city will be able to pay those two new officers for only the next two years. He said the city paid all city employees a total of $50.4 million in 2012.

“I get blasted by some of the bargaining units” for such suggestions, Constantin said. “It’s not the employees’ fault they cost so much. That’s not what I am communicating. It’s just that this is the only place we can look to cut.”

He defended his annual salary of $160,000, considerably more than his predecessor Jennifer Hennessy, by pointing out that he has replaced three employees whose total salaries added up to $390,000.

“I get blasted in everything I say,” Constantin said. “I’m trying to fight the good fight. The next six months present our last and best hope, and it’s got to involve bargaining [over city-employee] benefits.”

He said the city can give, but has to ask for something in return.

When asked if the city should consider filing for bankruptcy, Constantin said that Chico is “not there yet.” He predicted that the courts would throw out a bankruptcy request, telling the city there were still places to cut spending.

As for selling assets such as city-owned buildings at the Chico Municipal Airport, Constantin said all options are being considered, but selling assets is a short-term fix at best.

City-employee union negotiations begin in October, Constantin said, but can be dragged out with no resolution before an arbitrator is called in, and that arbitrator may well say the city has more services it could cut before going after employee pay and benefits.

Nakamura lamented the tough situation the city finds itself in, and said that, in actuality, balancing the general fund is going to require another $7 million in spending cuts.

“How do you cut another $7 million out of the budget?” he asked rhetorically. “You don’t. The community has certain expectation levels.”

Nakamura said the city will be going through some rough times over the next several years.

“I feel like I’m never delivering any good news,” he said. “I enjoyed going to the [grand] openings of Dick’s [Sporting Goods] and BevMo!,” he said. “That’s good news. But the deficit we’ve created is overwhelming.”

He said he does not enjoy cutting public services and realizes that limiting access to parts of Bidwell Park is not going over well.

“I know the public is really angry,” Nakamura said. “I can only hope they will be understanding.”

He did say citizen volunteers are beginning to come forward to offer help, and that the city needs “to partner with anybody and everybody we can.”