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Gilroy, Calif., council approves more layoffs with slight tweak
[December 17, 2008]

Gilroy, Calif., council approves more layoffs with slight tweak

(Dispatch (Gilroy, CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 17--A weary city council gave City Administrator Tom Haglund a formal nod of approval Monday night to downgrade Sunrise Fire Station to an ambulance-only operation and to lay off two firefighters and one police department employee, but the body voted 4-3 to restore a supporting officer position as the city copes with a spate of gang-related violence.

The meeting went until 1:30 a.m., and about 20 people in the audience made it to midnight to hear one council member chastise staff over numbers and exchange barbs with colleagues. The decisive and divisive discussion mostly centered on the prudence of laying off a multi-service officer and assigning a sworn police officer to replace that position.

MSOs run arrestees to jail in San Jose and also complete other time-consuming tasks that allow beat officers to remain on the streets. The position costs about $137,000 a year, but officers and council members said keeping up street presence has become increasingly important amid a rash of gang-related shootings.

"I'm far more concerned of a member of my family being a victim of crime more than anything else," said Councilman Dion Bracco, who voted to restore the position along with Councilmen Craig Gartman, Bob Dillon and Perry Woodward.

There was confusion whether the body should even vote on Haglund's suggestions after it gave him authority to cut expenditures further when it approved the first 44 layoffs last month. Councilwoman Cat Tucker tried to remind her colleagues of this before the split vote Monday night.

"We have no choice," Tucker said before the body went ahead and voted anyway. "We cannot balance our budget based on fear."

Saving the MSO means the Police Officers Association won't have to.

The union voted last month to forego volunteer specialty assignments instead of losing their colleague. Chief Denise Turner said such a "noble" move would pencil out financially, but she warned it would do irrevocable damage to the department by eradicating the SWAT program and other auxiliary assignments that require expensive training.

Mayor Al Pinheiro went one step further by knocking the union's stance as obstinate given the cuts the city's municipal and fire unions have taken: Twenty-one percent of the city's municipal workers -- who belong to American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees -- and 16 percent of the fire union's employees have received pink slips compared to 1.6 percent of the POA's membership, he said.

"We're laying off six (firefighters) and all these others from the city, and now we get a letter from the POA saying, 'We're not going to play this game,'" Pinheiro said before expressing further grief over the union declining to meet with Haglund, unlike AFSCME or the fire union.

"With all due respect to the POA," Pinheiro said, "They've been here when things were good, and this community provided them with the benefits they asked for, and now that things are tough, we need them to be here to work with us."

While the council restored the MSO position, it agreed with Haglund's suggestion to make the full-time crime analyst a part-timer and to lay off a public records technician: both AFSCME employees within the police department.

Haglund will also continue to meet with the city's unions -- except the POA unless it offers -- to discuss cutting work hours, an option Councilwoman Cat Tucker has advocated instead of lay-offs. Firefighter Jim Buessing, who represents Gilroy Fire Local #2805, said he will sit down with the city Thursday to discuss the ramifications of laying off 6 firefighters and paring back operations at Sunrise Fire Station to medical only.

"There doesn't seem to be a consensus on what will happen when you reduce down fire operations: vehicle responses, (hazardous material) calls -- everything will be affected," Buessing said Wednesday. "It is the city's prerogative to determine what levels of service it offers to its citizens, but it is our job in the fire department to be sure there is a fully informed council and city."

The additional fire cuts reflect Sunrise's relatively slow business. Last fiscal year, the Las Animas and Chestnut fire stations each responded to about 1,600 calls. Sunrise helped out with 107 of those call and fielded 343 of its own, only four of which were for active fires, according to city figures. Haglund used this data to recommend turning Sunrise into a medical-only response station, which is how it operated until September 2007.

"It is reasonable to conclude that the call volume out of Sunrise does not fully justify the staffing of three firefighters per shift," Haglund wrote. "Staffing levels (should) be adjusted back to a rescue operations station."

This could save the city $153,048 this fiscal year and $365,212 next year. Staff also expects the fire department to save $180,000 a year in overtime costs next year. The department spent $790,985 on 2006-'07 overtime for its 58 employees.

Comparing personnel costs at each station to the number of calls shows that each call at Chestnut and Las Animas represents about $1,120 worth of staff time, whereas each call at Sunrise represents more than $4,000. Chestnut and Las Animas require four firefighters for each of their three shifts as a result of union talks in 2001, but Sunrise only needs three per shift.

The council already approved laying off four of the department's six relief firefighters, who step up to the plate when regular employees go on vacation of fall ill, but Haglund has bumped that up to achieve the additional savings requested by the council.

Gartman also broached the idea of closing Sunrise, which would save $1.4 million, but Woodward and Fire Chief Dale Foster said closure would be unwise because it would bet on Sunrise's past call volume continuing in the future and would lead to heavier reliance on neighboring fire agencies.

"Just because we've been lucky in the past doesn't mean we will continue to be," Woodward said.

"We're going to run out of neighbors to call to keep ourselves safe," Foster said.

By sparing the MSO position, the reductions come just short of achieving the council's direction to save $500,000 this year and $1 million next year. The first round of layoffs -- coupled with postponed infrastructure projects -- will save $3.3 million this fiscal year and $6.7 million next year. With the latest cuts, officials expect this year's deficit to total $2.2 million and expect next year's general fund to be about $900,000 in the black.

Gartman sent council members a spreadsheet of different city revenues and expenditures two hours before the meeting Monday night and then asked Finance Director Christina Turner to provide the above year-end projections given the latest cuts. The last-minute request confused many of his colleagues and threw city staff into a loop as they struggled to help with the councilman's impromptu arithmetic lesson.

"It scares the hell out of me that you guys don't know these numbers," Gartman said as Turner rubbed her forehead and flipped through thick binders. "These people are wondering whether they'll have jobs in February, and we don't know if we have the right figures or not."

Pinheiro called Gartman's tirade "inappropriate" and said the councilman "had a habit of giving us numbers at the last minute."

"I will not be spending my time doing (Haglund's) job or (Turner's) job," Pinheiro said as Turner continued punching number into her calculator. "I have full confidence in what they're doing."

"Stop making a last-minute show," Councilman Peter Arellano told Gartman. "If you wanted to do (Haglund's) job, you should've applied."

Haglund said Gartman's numbers were wrong, too, before he diplomatically responded to Gartman's anger.

"I apologize we weren't ready to do this," Haglund said. "We're doing our best."

Aside from layoffs, Haglund will also discuss cost-splitting ideas with Hollister and Morgan Hill. The latter has talked about a shared South County recreation program with Gilroy.

The rest of Haglund's proposed cuts this time around come from the fire department and other spending reductions, including $40,000 budgeted for the Visitor's Bureau and $24,000 targeted for the Economic Development Corporation. The council considered these funding cuts in June but abandoned them at the last minute because critics argued the bureau and EDC make money for the city.

As far as losing money, though, shrinking tax receipts and sour investments have contributed to a dwindling general fund reserve, but the fund also insures nearly $32 million worth of infrastructure and public facility projects that were supposed to draw funds from fees that developers have stopped paying because they have stopped building. The rainy-day fund held $26 million a year ago, and, without the latest proposed layoffs, staff expects the reserve to drop to $8.3 million by June 2009 and to negative $11.8 million a year later.

It will also take time to work through the politics of layoffs. Senior employees have the option of "bumping" subordinates who did not receive layoff notices.

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