Tightening the belt

City Council adopts budget with reduced spending

Peter Durfee, head of the Chico Police Officers Association, addresses the Chico City Council as it considers a proposed budget.

Peter Durfee, head of the Chico Police Officers Association, addresses the Chico City Council as it considers a proposed budget.

Photo By karen laslo

The Chico City Council adopted the 2013-14 fiscal-year budget Tuesday (June 18) after more than 10 hours of reports from department heads, discussions among council members and input from a couple of dozen citizens.

The new budget calls for across-the-board cuts to help plug a $4.8 million general-fund deficit and rein in spending. A report from Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin released a few weeks back says that over the past five years the city “deficit-spent or reduced their cash basis by $20.5 million.”

City Manager Brian Nakamura, in his opening statements to the council, said it was important to “separate people from the problems” and not lay personal blame for current financial conditions. He said the city consists of “givers, matchers and takers. Unfortunately, there are a lot of takers.”

The new budget, based on the consolidation of 11 city departments into five, calls for the elimination of more than 50 city jobs, many of which are currently vacant. But a number of city employees have received “bumping notices” that say they may have the chance to switch to another job or may be laid off.

Some of those job losses come from public-safety sectors. The proposed budget called for the elimination of five currently vacant fire-department positions and 13 unfilled positions within the police department. But the police would also lose two positions due to retirement, two community-service officers, one crime analyst and one animal-control officer.

The city-employee payroll accounts for 87 percent of the budget, making job elimination a natural target for cutting spending. Altogether, the city spends $36 million on salaries and benefits. The Chico Police Department accounts for 46 percent of the city’s general-fund spending, the fire department accounts for 27 percent, and general government operations get 11 percent.

Constantin told the council that city efforts to get a line of credit from Bank of America, which holds the city’s accounts, were rejected because the of the city’s dire financial situation.

Still, he said sales-tax revenue is expected to increase by 5.4 percent over last year and property tax could increase by 10 percent, based on estimates by an outside consultant.

The possible compromise of public safety was the concern most voiced by the council members and the public. Police Chief Kirk Trostle said the department had 133 employees 10 years ago. In 2007 it had 157. Today it has 125. A national standard says a city the size of Chico should have 141 total police employees. Trostle said he would like to see 82 sworn police officers on board; the city currently has 61.

Fire Chief Jim Beery said the department will probably have to close down a station, most likely Station 3, which serves the Chico Municipal Airport. But that in turn could lead to the Federal Aviation Agency halting commercial flights into the airport.

The Public Works Department, which oversees the parks and the urban forest, is also facing employee layoffs. The tree services will lose four full-time employees, which eliminates the tree crew. Tree work will now be contracted out to private companies.

Much of the public input concerned the potential erosion of public safety. Tom Nickell, a former council member and highway patrolman, suggested a quarter-cent sales-tax increase dedicated to hiring more police.

Peter Durfee, head of the Chico Police Officers Association, told the council that crime is up 7.4 percent while the police officer staffing is at a 20-year low.

“The Chico Police Department is running on fumes,” he said. “And we understand we are largest piece of the [budget] pie.”

Others protested cuts to the arts, parks and the fire department.

When it came back to the council and staff, Constantin pointed out that the annual average pay for police officers is $97,000 plus benefits, while firefighters get $117,000 plus benefits. The median income for a Chico household is $36,000. Perhaps, Constantin seemed to be saying, the police and fire employees could offer the city some help at the union bargaining table.

In the end, the council voted 5-2 to adopt the new budget with the caveat that Constantin and Nakamura also bring a plan to finance the hiring of six police officers to the July 2 meeting. Councilmembers Ann Schwab and Sean Morgan cast the dissenting votes.