The City Council will consider a layoffs-heavy approach, eliminating 10 jobs including fire chief, to address a projected $1.7 million budget shortfall when it meets 7 p.m. Tuesday at . But jobs could be saved if employee groups agree to other concessions.
At this point, the city is not looking at fee increases to tackle the deficit in its $30 million annual general fund budget.
A report prepared by city staff outlines a set of cuts that would offset the $1.7 million and includes cutting the fire chief and two firefighter positions. The Police Department would lose a patrol officer, a night lieutenant and a sergeant in the investigations division and the animal control officer. It also suggested eliminating an IT analyst, a library manger and the community preservation officer, who assists with fire code enforcement.
Cutting the fire chief position would save the city $284,806 in salary and benefits. The two firefighter positions, if cut, would save an additional $282,150. The cuts from the Police Department would total nearly $650,000. In all, the layoffs would mean $1.56 million in savings.
The balance of the $1.7 million would come from cutting support for community groups and the amount the city sets aside for internal funds such as vehicle replacement and facility maintenance.
At a budget study session last week, the City Council directed staff to come up with ways to address the shortfall using all means necessary even if it meant service cuts — something it had been reluctant to do in the recent past.
That budget discussion began on an ominous note when Finance Director Rob Sousa said, "We have some difficult budget news to talk about."
He noted the that have beset the city, most notably large drops in property tax and sales tax revenues, and the to offset those losses.
Sousa said the long-range budget forecast shows a structural deficit of $1.7 million per year — the most likely scenario — for the next two years and beyond. He acknowledged that the estimates could be off by as much as $600,000, meaning the deficit could be as high as $2.3 million or as low as $1.1 million.
After questioning and comments by members of the City Council and the public, the council voted 3-2 to direct city staff to develop a list of cuts that would erase a deficit of $1.7 million.
The dissenters, Councilmen and, wanted the spending plan to assume the worst-case scenario, arguing that if the revenue picture brightened the city could adjust the spending plan upward. They pointed out that budgets for the past two years had been based on the most-likely revenue stream but that the worst-case scenarios had been what transpired.
The three yes votes came from, who announced her intention to last month, and Councilmen Mark and, who both are.
One way to avoid the layoffs is if the employee groups agree to wage and benefit concessions, but the only way to reopen the contracts is if the negotiations are meant as a way to avoid layoffs.
City Manager Brad Kilger, who was the primary architect of the budget-cutting plan, was quick to point out that the list is not meant as a blueprint for staffing levels: "The list was written as a way to cover a shortfall, not as an organizational end game."
Kilger is familiar with using one administrator to run both the police and fire departments. Ceres, the city he worked for before Benicia, has a public safety department. The head of that department, Art Dewark, is a career police officer. In California, because of the certifications required to run a police department, career firefighters such as Benicia Fire Chief Steve Vucurevich cannot run public safety departments.
Kilger says he never discussed the possibility of running a public safety department with recently promoted Chief of Police Andrew Bidou when he was considering Bidou for the job.
As for the possibility of losing Vucurevich, Kilger is not happy. “I think Steve is a great guy. He’s an exceptional fire chief. We’re in tough times and sometimes you have to make tough decisions.”
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