Tough choices ahead as SJ grapples with budget

May 3, 2011 7:44:32 PM PDT
It's a budget crisis that's leading to grim choices. As it plays out over the next month, it appears there will be plenty of losers and virtually no winners.

One by one, 11 city worker bargaining units have been in negotiations over pay cuts and layoffs. San Jose's police officers are in negotiations now over a 10 percent pay cut that firefighters have already accepted. However, both police and firefighters are also facing possible layoffs -- 122 sworn officers and 64 firefighters. Layoffs are also targeted in the city's libraries and in the parks and recreation department.

Labor leaders are angry that workers are bearing the brunt of the city's challenge to close a $115 million budget shortfall. Ben Field, chief of staff at the South Bay Labor Council, says layoffs also translate into reduced services for taxpayers.

"The cuts are just devastating," said Field. "It'll change the quality of life in San Jose. It'll affect public safety. It's really a terrible budget."

Mayor Chuck Reed's policy analyst, Michelle McGurk, disagrees that city workers are being unfairly targeted. If requested concessions are won, they will save the city $39 million, or roughly one-third of the $115 million deficit.

The fire department and the firefighters union are working on a staffing plan to provide protection with the projected layoff of 64 firefighters, even as the City Council and city administrators continue to debate where the cuts will come. They're talking about reducing the number of companies at seven of the city's 33 fire stations on a rotating basis. Those seven stations currently have two companies (an engine and a truck). On any given day, two of those seven stations would be reduced to one company. The choice of those stations would depend on seasonal needs, such as proximity to areas of wildland fire potential during the summer.

The residents of San Jose realize the consequences.

"To cut the police is so wrong, the fire department is so wrong," said San Jose resident Martin Calderon. "We've got so many elderly people around that it's going to really hurt us if they do that."

"I wouldn't be angry at the city because that's what has to be done, but I can see where people do get angry where money is tight and the budget is tight, and they rely on these sources for their recreation or for their libraries or stuff like that," said San Jose resident William Leonard.

The City Council is still wrestling with other ways to make cuts, but the biggest loser will be the public. Reed acknowledges quality of life will take a hit.

"We're shrinking the workforce, and that means reducing services," said Reed. "So we have library hours reduced, community center hours reduced, and we have facilities sitting open that we can't afford to operate, so I think the people are feeling it already."

Reed says one other idea he might consider next year is adding a quarter-percent sales tax that would generate about $30 million. But he says he wouldn't ask for voter approval of that idea until and unless employees and the city itself tightens its belt.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the budget and staffing cuts before the City Council takes its first vote on the 2011-2012 budget on June 14. The final adoption vote will occur on June 21.


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