Supervisors postpone budget cuts

County seeks to give unions time to present alternatives to layoffs

The Butte County Board of Supervisors faced a decision this week that would have made Solomon cringe.

At their meeting Tuesday (March 3), the supervisors were confronted not only with the necessity of making $11 million in budget cuts for the 2009-10 fiscal year and eliminating 115 county jobs, but also with chambers filled to overflowing with concerned citizens and county employees, notably several dozen firefighters.

The immediate decision the supervisors had to make was whether to approve the plan interim Chief Administrative Officer Greg Iturria had developed, in concert with department heads, that would have immediately laid off some 70 county employees, including 23 firefighters. The alternative was to give the employees time to come up with a proposal for sharing the pain—through furloughs, lower salaries or other adjustments—to avoid layoffs.

Slashing jobs, especially public-safety jobs, is always painful, but there was a twist here: The more money the county saved during the remainder of this fiscal year, the fewer cuts next year.

“If you implement this budget-reduction plan now, you will have to cut only $4 million during the next round of cuts, in May,” Iturria told the board. “If you don’t implement it [and continue spending at current rates], you will have to cut $6 million.”

Altogether, the county faces an $18 million budget shortfall for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Lives and livelihoods were on the line Tuesday. The very first person to address the board brought that home powerfully. When he introduced himself, he said, “I’m Randy Frieze, and for about the next six days I’m a county employee.” If he lost his job in the Probation Department, he said, he’d probably lose his house, he’d certainly lose the health insurance that pays for the medications his sick wife needs to stay alive, and “maybe lose my life.”

“This budget can’t be solved only by layoffs,” he told the board. The employees are willing to make concessions on wages and benefits to avoid layoffs, have done it before, and even have a provision in their contract allowing it.

“There have to be other ways,” he said.

There was something in Iturria’s plan for everyone to hate: cutbacks in library hours; reduced public-health services; cutbacks in development services; loss of eight positions in the district attorney’s office; reduced janitorial and maintenance care in county facilities; loss of eight positions in the Probation Department. In the end, no department was spared.

But the cuts that stirred the most opposition were to the Fire Department. Iturria’s plan calls for rotating “brown-outs” of county fire stations and winter closure of several foothills stations. A couple dozen folks, many of them residents of small mountain communities such as Berry Creek and Forest Ranch, were concerned about the latter, noting that all kinds of emergencies, including house fires, occur during winter months.

Some speakers called for raising the sales tax. Others called for shutting down county offices one day a week, the approach taken during an earlier fiscal crisis. One elderly woman suggested selling confiscated marijuana to medical users. She got the one good laugh of what was otherwise a seriously unfunny meeting.

As Supervisor Jane Dolan said, “This is unbelievably depressing.”

Only Paradise-area Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi supported Iturria’s plan as written, mostly because he felt it was essential to take action immediately. His motion to do so got no second, however.

Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who had a large fire in her home last month, said she absolutely could not support closing fire stations. At the same time, she was reluctant to approve layoffs before employees had a chance to present alternatives.

She moved to eliminate all currently vacant positions—about 50 of the 115 slated for elimination—as well as make some $3 million in additional cuts not involving layoffs. Iturria noted that cutting the unfilled jobs would help address long-term problems but wouldn’t save any money immediately.

Board Chairman Bill Connelly then said he was willing to put the issue off for three weeks, until the board’s March 24 meeting, to give the unions time to come up with a plan. Kirk accepted that, and the matter was tabled until then—much to the relief of people in the room.

The baby had been cut in half, but that was probably the best that could be done under the circumstances.