Rough way to go

Chuck Rough retires early to help balance the town’s budget

Paradise Town Manager Chuck Rough got the go-ahead to retire early, but his plan will keep him at the helm of the struggling municipality through several challenging developments.

Paradise Town Manager Chuck Rough got the go-ahead to retire early, but his plan will keep him at the helm of the struggling municipality through several challenging developments.


Like many municipalities in California, Paradise has been skirting the edge of a fiscal abyss. The global economic downturn reduced the town’s already-meager receipts from sales tax; meanwhile, the corresponding contraction of the housing market led to reassessments and foreclosures that cut into the property-tax share, literally hitting the town where it lives.

Since 2008, town government has lost 22 percent of its workforce through layoffs, early retirements and hiring freezes. Yet even that degree of cutting was not enough to forestall a budget deficit for fiscal year 2011-12.

Longtime Town Manager Chuck Rough (pronounced row) crunched the numbers. He then thought about his contract, which runs through the end of 2013 at a salary of $128,000 a year. If he retired at the end of 2011 and returned for 2012 as an hourly employee without benefits, Town Hall would save the equivalent of a full year’s pay over the next two years ($46,000 in FY ’11-12 and $84,000 in FY ’12-13).

Rough pondered the option for three weeks, not even mentioning it to his wife. Once he did talk with her, he revised the budget and alerted the Town Council to the change. The council approved the new budget June 28, tacitly signing off on the exit strategy—albeit with reservations.

“He’s so good at what he does, it’ll be really hard to replace him,” said Steve “Woody” Culleton, who has served on the council for seven of the 15 years Rough has been town manager. “I’d rather hold onto him longer. I’m in complete agreement with the decision we made as a council; I just have concerns.”

In a phone interview, Culleton articulated some legal as well as logistical considerations. The California Senate on Monday (July 11) approved a version of Assembly Bill 340, whose pension-reform measures would include a waiting period between the time a public employee could retire and then resume his or her job on an hourly basis.

Rough would do just that, starting in January 2012, via two six-month agreements called “960 contracts” that would pay him $45 an hour (versus the $60 an hour his salary now brings in).

“We won’t do anything that doesn’t comply with the law,” Rough said—so, decisions in Sacramento have the potential to trump the plan in Paradise.

Culleton also wonders about operational feasibility. He cited calculations of Councilman Tim Titus showing that the town would realize significant savings only if Assistant Town Manager Lauren Gill stepped into Rough’s position (either on an interim or permanent basis, whichever the council decides) and her position doesn’t get filled for at least a year.

“I don’t know that we can operate with a town manager who does everything,” Culleton said. “We need to reshape some of our structure, but I don’t know if we can restructure enough. … Both Lauren and Chuck put in more hours than we pay them for. It takes both of their commitment to keep this boat afloat.”

Nonetheless, Rough’s early departure seems inevitable. In an interview in his office, Rough said that staying through 2012 would enable him to oversee another budget cycle as well as several developments on tap for next year.

The town is exploring the possibility of entering into a service contract with CalFire in place of its own fire department. The proposed Walmart superstore is expected to come before the Planning Commission and Town Council for final approvals. Paradise, the largest municipality west of the Mississippi without a sewer system, is weighing options for wastewater treatment. In addition, Rough hopes to restore momentum to the Paradise Community Village project, a complex off the southern portion of Clark Road that would include affordable housing and recreation facilities.

“There’s a lot that’s going on that I want to be here for, and have my hand in, before I finally wave goodbye,” Rough said.

Well, not quite goodbye—more like “See you later.” He isn’t planning to move and says he’ll “always be available to the town if they want me to serve on a volunteer committee or help on a special project.” One thing he did rule out: running for Town Council.

Gill, for her part, is prepared for whatever comes. She’s worked at Town Hall for nearly 30 years, under five town managers (interim and permanent). Gill said she wasn’t wholly surprised by Rough’s decision because “he’s been working toward that—he plans things out, like you should if you’re a good manager. It seems like a good transition time, and [the departure date] is a year and a half away.”

Said Culleton: “I think what he’s offering is pretty cool. He’s offering to help the team. He’s a strong administrator who runs a tight ship, and he’s done a lot of good. We’d have been in a lot worse shape if not for his leadership.”