BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
I work for a large city in California.
Late last fiscal year (Spring 2009), in a fit of spite-laced “cost-cutting,” my employer decided to furlough, one day out of every two-week pay period, the roughly 7,500 members of the union to which I belong. I suspect we were the first hit because we actually had the “temerity” to go on strike a few years ago.
The next step was an early retirement program that would hopefully remove 2400 employees from the city’s payroll. But this becomes a significant hit on the pension plan’s funds, so those still working have to pay more into it. Plus, since this program applied to all employees, it should have been voted on by ALL those impacted, not, as occurred, only members of certain favored unions got to vote on it.
Later, and separately, my employer started applying the screws to these unions’ members too, through their more loosely written contracts. Obviously, being the “good slaves” didn’t get them much. In this case, it was a few hours of furlough, plus late payment of some components of compensation packages, and probably a few other bits I don’t now remember.
In the last two-three months, as the city’s financial crisis has deepened, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the leadership has realized how deep it is, and most likely both, talk of, and now implementation, of layoffs have commenced. First it was 1000 employees. Then 2000 more, and now the total figure stands at 4000.
As this became clear, many people were encouraged to, and did, move to sections, divisions, and departments that are “special funded.” This means the money for the doings of the particular agency come from sources that are not susceptible to the vagaries of what the state provides the cities, or is property based, or is otherwise fixed. Where those monies come from and what they’re spent on cannot be changed. You see it’s the “General Fund” that’s in trouble. This is the case with all cities. This is usually where police, fire, parks, senior, health, social, and other services get their money.
Now we get to the part that renders the decision makers similar to a bunch of cartoon characters.
Perhaps the most glaring absurdity is the continued hiring of police officers to attain some ideal number dreamt up who-knows-where. Even funnier is that there was talk of furloughing or otherwise reducing the police department’s payroll, while continuing the hiring! Then there’s the lack of reductions, even if nominal, to the staff of elected officials.
A source of savings that I’d suggested when employees were asked for ideas, and heard that it was discussed— close down the city for a day each week. This would save on overhead. And, it would allow employees who need it to find something part-time to supplement their reduced incomes. Yet this was never done. Heck, if nothing else, it would have reduced emissions from thousands of automobiles, helped to comply with federal clean air mandates, and relieved other drivers of some of the traffic grief they endure just getting to and from work.
What happened to “sharing the pain,” something that was touted to us? The last two examples speak volumes about the lack of seriousness with which these tough issues economic times are being approached. Further evidence of this lack is how the whole “move to special funded areas” process was handled. This could just as well have been done a year ago. It would have initiated savings sooner, and therefore had more effect. Then, with all the retirements and other departures (if you kept track, 6400 people, roughly a 15% of the city’s workforce) rising from this situation, we have the rapid depletion of institutional memory. Only recently are the higher-ups awakening to this reality, per workplace scuttlebutt. And the final bit of farce is provided by the City Administrative Officer who’s going to “seek counseling” after being pulled over for drunk driving. Plus, I’d heard from a friend whom I trust that the current CAO’s predecessor, while a jocular sort, left the impression of being out of his depth.
I don’t think any of more than the barest of handfuls of city employees statewide would absolutely refuse to take a hit in these troubled economic times. Such measures should be implemented fairly and rationally. But, when witness to what I’ve described above, anyone would be angry, disappointed, and disinclined to give anything up until more good faith is demonstrated by decision makers.
Another source of aggravation is the knowledge, as described in my piece “Fiscal & Governance Irresponsibility” last summer, that much, though clearly not all, of this grief could have been avoided if the “government spends too much” fallacy had not been peddled by its extremist proponents with such tremendous success. What I’ve recently recognized is why this bit of absurdity gets such traction. The corporate share income taxes paid into the common government pot has declined drastically over the last half century. At the same time, the rates paid most citizens have remained relatively steady. So, there’s less money, and obviously, less gets done. The individual taxpayer is left with the impression that s/he’s getting less for the same amount of money (or paying more per unit of service received).
I still hope more wisdom will manifest in upcoming deliberations of city leadership. There are at least two new city council members whose judgment is generally sound. Perhaps they’ll bring a measure of good sense to the fray.
No doubt other Armenians confront these issues alongside their coworkers. This impacts their morale and ability to participate in our community’s organizational and political life. Let’s work towards good solutions to these problems for all citizens’ sakes.