Standing room only as city workers urge layoffs be avoided

May 19, 2010
Santa Paula City Council

Faced with a looming $1.2 million deficit, the City Council balked at recommended layoffs and instead suggested emergency meetings with employee representatives to discuss salary reductions before a budget decision is made Wednesday.

Although numerous positions, including several in the police department, are already vacant, recommendations for layoff ranged from street workers and customer service to two top positions in the Public Works Department.

The budget session came the day after Public Works Director Cliff Finley was abruptly terminated. City employees and others overfilled council chambers for the special meeting, which was not televised. The May 19 meeting will start at 6 p.m. at City Hall Council Chambers and will be televised live - and later replayed - on Time Warner Cable Channel 10.

Faced with a deficit over years of state money grabs, lost gas taxes, declining sales and property revenues and cuts and reductions of about $2 million over a two-year period, City Manager Jaime Fontes told the council May 13 the situation is dire. He offered three options: across the board salary cuts and furloughs, the elimination of 13 positions by June 30, or outsourcing a variety of city services ranging from utility customer billing and street sweeping to custodian, park/facility maintenance and refuse service.

The options, according to the report by Finance Director John Quinn, could also be juggled to come up with a formula of savings, but the report recommended the second option centered on layoffs as the quickest and more long-term solution.

“Everything,” said Mayor Jim Tovias, “is on the table,” and he noted that although he did not want to close a fire station or eliminate four police officer positions, “these are things we have to consider.”

Several city workers urged the council to let them help with solutions that would keep Santa Paula a viable community without resorting to outside contractors.

Public Works Superintendent Joe Ferguson said he wrote a detailed memo to the council outlining other aspects of refuse and street division duties.

Traffic signage and crosswalks can be replaced, repaired or flagged immediately saving the city potentially liability: “One wreck, one good lawyer,” he noted, “we loose every single time.”

A knocked down stop sign could take three days to replace “instead of one hour,” which Ferguson said is standard city procedure even with the department’s reduced workforce.

The larger staff of the past had churned out much work, and Robert Howard said those remaining are still on call “24 hours a day, 365 days a year” to respond to various city needs whether community celebrations of emergencies. An outside contractor, he noted, would not likely respond or even care. “I live here, and I care about this city,” and Howard noted many of the street and refuse department duties are behind the scenes but vital to the community.

City employee Jenny Cervantes told the council a majority of municipal workers live in Santa Paula and care about their community. “We do not feel valued” when not asked for input on solutions, and she asked that any decision be delayed for study of the city report and more input.

City worker Frank Zuniga said contracts would eventually lead to larger bills for citizens, and Danny Carrillo, work site coordinator for SEIU Union Local 721, said “If you layoff workers you will delay economic recovery in this town” where many city workers live.

Captain Jerry Byrum representing the Santa Paula Firefighters Union, said maintaining two fire stations is vital. About 700 emergency calls received last year were “back to back,” and response would have been delayed if the city had only one station and had to rely on county help. Byrum noted, “We’re always here to protect and serve the community anyway we can.”

Due to state cuts and a federal order to reduce the prison population, Sergeant Ryan Smith, representing the Santa Paula Police Officers Association, said the positions noted in the staff report are already vacant in times when more parolees are out on the streets. “It’s not uncommon for us to be in foot pursuits and taking guns off these guys daily,” a statement Smith said “is not propaganda.”

He urged council members to ride along with officers so they can observe for themselves that “Things we are facing on the streets are very serious.” Smith noted Police Chief Steve MacKinnon has “done a great job” so far dealing with the impacts of the budget on the department.

Fire Chief Rick Araiza said public safety would be comprised if a station were closed. Tovias asked if there is “any typical time” double calls are received, and Araiza said the timing is random. In addition, the county has mutual aid staffing mandates centered on automatic mutual aid.

Most members of the council voiced concerns over the options as well as the speed of decision-making, and opted instead to form a committee to study budget issues. Tovias and Councilman Dr. Gabino Aguirre, city staff and union representatives will meet with discussions essentially centered on potential layoffs, salary cuts and alternative solutions.


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