Wise up, city leaders

Chico isn’t used to hearing that its government is going broke, but as City Manager Greg Jones told the City Council at its annual budget update meeting Tuesday (June 5), it definitely is (see our report). The city is spending $6 million more each year from its general fund than it’s taking in. Ten years down the road, if it continues on its present course, it will be nearly $57 million in the hole.

Obviously, this can’t continue, so what to do? Jones gave the council a list of 54 “deficit reduction alternatives"—both cuts and “revenue enhancers"—for its Finance Committee to mull over and prioritize. They range from the crude (selling advertising/naming rights to city parks) and the picayune (hiking parking fines by $5) to the practically unreasonable (privatization of the airport) and the reasonably practical (changing overtime policies).

The elephant in the room is the fact that 78.1 percent of the general fund is spent on salaries. As Jones is fond of saying, “We’re a people business.” The problem is that the city is spending so much on its employees—pampering them with overly generous pay and benefits packages—that there’s not enough money left over to do such things as fix the streets, staff the police and fire departments fully, and balance the budget.

Jones doesn’t like to hear that. “I think we should be proud that we compensate our people well,” he told the council Tuesday. But that pride comes at a high cost if it results in a failure to provide the services the people of Chico want and expect to have. Jones may feel proud, but the rest of us who don’t enjoy lifetime health insurance and cushy defined-benefit retirement plans get a bit upset when our car hits a pothole or our call to the Police Department doesn’t get a rapid response.

Besides, it’s not Jones’ money, nor the council’s. It’s ours. We expect it to be spent wisely. The fact that the city is running out of money tells us that it hasn’t been spent wisely. That needs to change. We’re eager to see what the council does with those 54 alternatives.