Time for a reckoning

If you’ve driven over a chuckhole in Chico recently, which is likely considering there are a lot of them out there, you may be feeling the frustration that comes from realizing that your city government isn’t doing what you want and expect it to do. After all, keeping the streets in good repair is a basic service. If it’s not being done, you as a taxpayer have a right to know why.

Our Cover Story this week, “Breaking the bank,” by Richard Ek, takes an in-depth look at current city finances in an effort to reveal the reasons for all those potholes. What it finds is that financially the city is seriously out of whack. It’s not bringing in as much money as it’s spending, and because of this it is being forced to dip into reserves to balance the budget. As City Manager Greg Jones constantly warns, the current situation is unsustainable.

Facing this budget imbalance, the city is not able to provide a number of services city residents want and expect from their government. Among other things, this has meant, as Jones acknowledges, not having enough money to keep city streets and roads in good repair, maintain local parks (including Bidwell Park) adequately, and extend creekside greenways, as mandated by city policy.

Why is the budget out of whack? It’s not, as conservatives charged during the election last year, because liberals waste money on charrettes and consultants and unnecessary lawsuits. Those costs, justified or not, amounted to only a tiny fraction of the budget. The bulk of the city’s money—more than 80 percent—goes for its 450 employees’ salaries and benefits. This is where the city has gone astray.

City revenues simply haven’t kept pace with the excessively generous increases in pay-and-benefits packages the city manager and members of the City Council have given city employees in recent years. City workers, who were well-paid in 2000, have enjoyed salary hikes ranging from 31 percent to 41 percent since then, so that the average city employee is now making more than $68,000. Firefighters, for example, start at $57,551, which is considerably more than new faculty with doctorates get at Chico State University.

On top of that, the cost of employees’ benefits packages has increased a whopping 379 percent. The city is now paying from 53 percent to 62 percent of workers’ salaries for benefits, a package that includes free life insurance, an exceedingly generous defined-benefit pension, and superior health-insurance coverage.

Local private-sector employees don’t enjoy anything even resembling the benefits all city employees enjoy.

They’re generous even by state government standards, and that’s saying something. The state pays 17 percent of salaries into pension funds and 25 percent for California Highway Patrol officers. Chico pays 25 percent for all employees, 32 percent for firefighters and 34 percent for police officers. The latter two groups are eligible for retirement at age 50 with up to 90 percent of salary. It’s no wonder the city doesn’t have enough money to fill the potholes.

Part of the problem, as Jones says, is “paternalism” on the part of city officials. But such generosity is possible only when your financial survival isn’t on the line—or when you’re spending other people’s money. Even then, though, there has to come a moment when someone says, “Wait, we aren’t doing our job properly.” For the city of Chico, which is currently in the midst of labor negotiations and preparing for its spring budget meetings, that moment has come.

Nobody wants city workers to receive less than fair recompense for their labors. But at the same time, city residents have a right to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and well—that is, to meet their basic needs—and that the city is living within its means. Right now that’s not happening.