Some call for freeze in city's personnel spending

By Terri Harber May 22, 2013 09:54 am

By Terri Harber

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Deciding whether — or how — to cut $150,000 from Baker City’s personnel expenses will be the task tonight of the 14-member budget board.

The meeting begins at 6 o’clock at Baker City Hall, 1655 First St.

 “If something doesn’t give a little bit, I’m not sure what this committee will deal with next year,” said Randy Daugherty, the board’s chairman.

He said the city has reached a financial “breakpoint.”

The board members have devoted much of the past two evenings to hearing about department budgets and overall spending concerns.

Solutions discussed so far have ranged from trimming the budget line by line, to laying off some workers.

Personnel costs make up 69.6 percent of the $5.9 million general fund in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.  

Money in the contingency and unappropriated ending fund balance accounts (roughly $827,000) isn’t included when determining this percentage.

Some city councilors — whose seven members are joined by seven community residents to make up the budget board — have asked that personnel expenses not rise at all. They want the proposed $3.53 million in personnel costs rolled back to the same level as for the current fiscal year: $3.38 million.

“We don’t know what the unions asked for, but you’re not going to spend more money,” Mayor Richard Langrell said Monday to City Manager Mike Kee.

There isn’t enough money for many projects the community would like to see happen, Langrell said.

These include new playground equipment at Geiser-Pollman Park, upgrading the men’s bathroom near the pro shop at Quail Ridge Golf Course, and a new hot water boiler for the showers at Sam-O Swim Center.

Langrell didn’t rule out laying off workers if necessary.

The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year doesn’t add any employees. The increase in personnel cost comes mostly from expected increases in insurance premiums.

Negotiations continue between the city and its three employee bargaining units: Baker City Employee Association, Baker City Professional Firefighters Union and Baker City Police Association. 

Many of these positions come with pay increases for reaching milestones in length of employment and completing additional training.

Kee said that presenting two of the bargaining units with no cost-of-living increases would automatically move the negotiations into binding arbitration — which would also cost money.

Langrell replied that the unions “could decide who won’t be working at the city.” 

Any additional money needed for labor costs would be taken from the contingency fund if negotiations aren’t completed by June 25. 

The contingency fund has been increased from $80,000 to $120,000 as a precaution should the city have to pay more under one or more of the labor contracts. 

New labor contracts would require council approval.  The current five-year labor agreements expire July 1. 

The budget is scheduled to be adopted by councilors on June 25.

Councilor Barbara Johnson, who has also called for financial restraint, said that without the contracts being finalized she doesn’t see how the board could determine there won’t be any increase in personnel costs.

“Setting an arbitrary limit isn’t always going to work,” Councilor Clair Button said. “Staff has made dramatic changes in the four years I’ve been here. We’ve managed to stay afloat.”  

About a dozen people showed up at Tuesday’s meeting. They wanted to express concern about retaining emergency services at the current levels but were told tonight (Wednesday) would be a better opportunity for making comments. 

Alan Blair, who implored these people to attend Tuesday’s meeting to support emergency services, represented the group and talked to the board about how important it is for the city to maintain short response times for police, fire and ambulance services.

“I’ve seen how rapidly a house fire could grow,” Blair said. “An undermanned fire department is an unsafe fire department.”

“I don’t think anyone is going to be happy about losing police or fire personnel,” said Gail Duman, a budget board member. “I don’t want to see cuts.”

“I agree,” Kee said.

The people who came to support these services broke into applause.

After hearing several budget board members ask for cuts in personnel costs — including layoffs — Kee said Monday that he’d return Tuesday with examples showing how layoffs might achieve that goal.

On Tuesday, Kee told the board members it would take three full-time employee layoffs and reduction of hours worked to 33 per week by a fourth employee to obtain personnel savings of $150,000, which would keep the total cost at the same level as the current fiscal year. 

The illustration featured elimination of one employee from the police department and another from the fire department. The third worker laid off as well as the employee with fewer hours both came from public works in Kee’s scenario.

The officer and firefighter would save more than $180,000 alone. Money saved from pay and benefits is offset by related expenses, however. 

Unemployment pay due to these employees would have come from the city. Overtime costs might rise during times when staff is extremely thin or a crisis erupts requiring involvement by many officers or firefighters.

Say the police duty eliminated would be the code enforcement and school resources officer. Along with the layoff-related costs there would be the loss of $15,000 from the school district for the service. 

Blair also said the process to fill that position in the future would cost money because it’s expensive to hire qualified people.

Other suggestions came during the two days. Budget board member Aletha Bonebrake suggested furloughs instead of layoffs. 

Johnson said the public works department appears “top heavy” because it has many managers. She also suggested that more services be combined with the county.

Daugherty explained that public works couldn’t be the focus of many reductions, especially if the purpose is solely to move potential resulting savings into emergency services. 

They are two different budget entities and it’s not allowed, he emphasized.

Kee warned that consolidation with the county isn’t always a financial “panacea.” During the upcoming fiscal year the city’s cost for Consolidated Dispatch service will rise by $24,000, for example. 

Non-government contractors might be a less costly option than the county for some city services, he said.

Daugherty also said that ambulance service in a community with “a lot of old people” shouldn’t be subject to cuts.

He suggested that personnel costs be tied to actual revenue in future spending plans.

There are some other service issues that were discussed. These include:

• Money budgeted to come from the state for the burial of utility lines under Resort  Street, about $145,000, is coming out of the street fund now. It turns out the state won’t cover burial of lines in the areas where the design required line movement anyway.

• The amount needed to deal with hazardous trees, budgeted at $2,500, is actually closer to $20,000, Button said.

Daugherty expects the board to wrap up its work this evening. If it doesn’t, there will be a meeting that starts at 6 p.m. Thursday, again at City Hall.