Residents protest city job cuts
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Plenty of anger, but few answers, were directed at the South Lake Tahoe City Council during a heated four hour special meeting Thursday night to discuss the 2011-2012 budget.
City Manager Tony O’Rourke has proposed cutting 21 jobs from the city payroll as part of an effort to close projected annual average deficits of $4.7 million during the next five years. The cuts would come through position freezes, eliminations, early retirements and layoffs.
The national economy, state raids on local funding, rising employee costs and deferred capital investment costs have all contributed to the projected deficits, O’Rourke said during a Thursday presentation.
“We didn’t create this situation, but we’re charged with fixing it and that’s what we’re going to do,” O’Rourke said.
Council members are scheduled to discuss the $28.6 million budget proposal again at a 6 p.m. meeting Sept. 27 at Lake Tahoe Airport. They are required to pass a balanced budget by Oct. 1.
More than 150 people attended Thursday’s meeting. Many were current or former city employees. Some were joined by friends and family. Nearly all were infuriated at the prospect of job losses.
Their concerns focused on the future of South Lake Tahoe Senior Center, cuts to parks and recreation, changes to retiree health coverage and increasing the number of temporary employees providing snow removal services from seven to 15. Three fire division chief positions could be eliminated under the budget proposal. Four police positions are not expected to be filled following a series of retirements.
Karen Perez, a redevelopment/housing assistant for the city, said her grant-funded position is also at risk.
“I urge you to reconsider the elimination of my position due to the needs and wants of this community in tough economic times,” Perez said.
Additional details of the budget proposal are subject to labor negotiations and have not been made public. Following Thursday’s meeting city spokeswoman Nancy Kerry said no cuts are planned at the senior center.
Several attendees criticized 10 percent pay raises given to Police and Fire Chief Brian Uhler, Finance Director Christine Vuletich and Community Services Director Stan Sherer in March, saying it has come at the expense of line level workers.
O’Rourke defended the salary increases, saying they were given to the management employees because of their expanded roles under a city reorganization plan.
Steve Crouch, the representative for the city’s general and public works collective bargaining unit, said the raises were a “questionable decision” and said all city employees have had to do more with less in recent years.
Crouch also criticized a series of expenditures by the city, including the purchase of software to keep tabs on the city’s roads and $9,000 on lighting a Christmas tree. Collection of $1 million in outstanding hotel tax, known as Transient Occupancy Tax, could have also saved the jobs proposed to be cut, Crouch said.
Much of the delinquent hotel tax is working its way through the court system, O’Rourke countered. A increase in TOT will be considered in two years, but now is not the time for increased taxes on city businesses O’Rourke said.
The League of California Cities suggests cities maintain a 10 percent reserve fund and Crouch said South Lake Tahoe should use its reserves to save jobs.
Policy requires the city to maintain reserve fund equal to 25 percent of the general fund. Under the current budget proposal, the city’s reserve will hit the 25 percent mark, $7.1 million, in 2013. The reserve rose as high as $14.8 million in 2007.
While acknowledging the League and other agencies have recommended a 10 to 15 percent reserve, O’Rourke said the percentages are not adequate in the current economy in a tourist town that needs the money in case of another emergency like the Angora fire.
The city has used reserve funding to balance its budget and limit job cuts during the past three years
“We cannot continue to kick the can down the road,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve been doing that since 2008.”
Crouch said the bargaining unit intends to work with the city to balance its budget, but also criticized management for presenting “ever-changing” numbers to labor unions regarding what concessions are needed.
Jere Copeland, executive director of the city’s administration and confidential employees association, said city staff have been asked to make concessions to their contracts in a matter of weeks rather than the typical 12 to 18 month timeline.
Employees have made concessions in 2009 and 2010 and a perception the budget problems are employees’ fault is unfounded, Copeland said.
“It’s not the employees fault and we want to work with you on that,” Copeland said.
O’Rourke acknowledged employees have made sacrifices in the past, but said those concessions are not enough to balance the city’s budget today.
The city manager drew fire from some members of the audience, including retired Public Works Supervisor Mike Pollock.
“You can go back to Colorado,” Pollock said while staring down O’Rourke. The remark drew loud applause from the audience.
Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Claire Fortier defended O’Rourke, saying vilifying the city manager is not the solution to the city’s budget crisis.
Several people who attended Thursday’s meeting suggested ways the city could save jobs. The reason why the council chose to hold a second special meeting on the budget was to gather additional ideas from the public.
Senior Center Supervisor Rob Swain, who indicated his job is at risk, said losing employees will actually cost the city money. He used a co-generation facility at South Lake Tahoe Recreation Center as an example. The plant would reduce the city’s energy costs, but is not operational because the people who administered the program were part of previous cuts, Swain said.
He said he’d like to see a greater focus on generating new revenue than the “pack your bags” attitude.
“We can get creative and see results,” Swain said.
South Lake Tahoe Realtor Robert Stiles also said the city should find ways to raise revenue rather than layoff employees.
The city could raise $130,000 a year through increasing vacation rental permit fees from $144 to $250, Stiles said.
With 65 percent of the city’s general fund budget tied to personnel costs, it is impossible for a balanced budget not to have an effect on employees, said Mayor Hal Cole.
“No matter what happens, lives and families will be affected and leaving town,” Cole said, noting the difficulty of making decisions that will impact friends and neighbors.
“Nobody wants to fire anybody,” Cole said. “This is the most difficult job in the world right now.”
Several other council members made similar remarks.
Councilman Tom Davis said the council is “all ears” when it comes to suggestions on how to balance the budget.
“It’s a sad situation,” Davis said. “Not one person wants to do what we have to do.”
Councilwoman Angela Swanson said the budget was a “somber situation,” but said she has a responsibility to taxpayers to balance the city’s budget.
She called the current model “unsustainable” and said she is in “full support” of the facts brought forward by O’Rourke and Vuletich.
Still, she suggested the city hold off on passing a budget to allow people more time to bring alternatives to the table.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do,” Fortier said. “I’m with Angela, give me a call because we are trying everything we know how.”