Dunce move, or genius?

Full report:
Read about all the Finance Committee’s actions Tuesday.

Pretend you’re a teacher. A new kid comes to class in the middle of the year, promoted from a grade below. We’ll call him Keith.

His first big assignment, due Tuesday, is economics. You’ve given each student a department to manage. The homework: cut budgets by 7.5 percent with the least amount of impact, then explain the how and why.

Tuesday morning comes. Teacher’s pet busts out PowerPoint, Illustrator, the works—flashy and precise. Keith has a different approach: He presents three scenarios, like something out of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” One cut is too small. Another is too big. The third is just right.

Keith didn’t follow instructions, but you think he’s made some sage suggestions. Do you give the new guy a pass, or mark him down?

The three councilmembers on the city’s Finance Committee—including a teacher, Mary Flynn—got put in that position Tuesday morning (April 22) when they heard proposals for trimming expenses in every city department.

Seven-and-a-half percent was the actual assignment. The flashy presentation came from the Police Department. And, yes, there’s a real Keith: Interim Fire Chief Keith Carter.

In the previous meeting, Chico PD drew criticism from Finance Committee Chairman Scott Gruendl for a stark plan of reducing jobs and services. Police Chief Bruce Hagerty and his captains stayed with their proposal but presented it differently Tuesday, with graphic displays of how losing $1.6 million a year would affect staffing and deployment.

Carter followed. He’d drawn praise last time for limiting his cuts to overtime—scaling back on “backfill” by going with a minimum of 20 firefighters instead of 22. For Chico Fire, 7.5 percent equals about $1 million. Carter proposed three options:

1. Divert one firefighter from the truck at Station 5, which would save $410,000.

2. Divert both firefighters from Truck 5.

3. Close a fire station—i.e. No. 2, serving the Avenues—which would save more than a million (though he wasn’t sure how much).

Councilman Larry Wahl, in particular, wasn’t pleased: “I don’t see $1 million in any of these.” Carter explained that for Option 2, he’d adjust vacation scheduling to reduce OT by another $200K.

Wahl deduced, “We’ve got Option 2 and 3 we don’t want to do —[3 is] a throwaway. Option 1 doesn’t get us there.” He pushed hard for “your strongest recommendation.” Carter chose No. 2.

Hagerty, who agonized over slashing 14 full-time officers from his force, had reason to grumble. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to a quorum: The committee decided not to recommend the 7.5 percent plan and referred it to the full council. Gruendl used Option 1 as an example of customized cutting, though afterward both he and Flynn said they’d already thought about varying the percentages before Carter’s report.

So, was Carter a shrewd guy, or naïve and lucky? Probably the latter, in light of his feeling afterward that “maybe it was a tactical error on my part” not following the assignment.

Police Captain Mike Maloney seemed inclined to believe the latter, too. “I’m not as intimately familiar with how their budget works as ours,” he explained, in the spirit of Gruendl’s desire not to pit departments against each other.

Still, Maloney added, “in general, if a department is able to make a significant cut without cutting allocated positions, that would make me want to look at the allocation budget.”