Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some thoughts on the county layoffs

As a county resident and taxpayer, I'd like to share some thoughts and questions I have about the county budget and recent layoffs of 25 county employees. I asked some of these questions and made some of these remarks at the board of supervisors' special meeting Monday, June 4. The only answer, from Supervisor Forster, was "We've been talking about all this at three budget hearings." 

As I pointed out at the meeting, there are there no draft FY 2012-13 budget documents online. There are no meeting packets or recordings online for any of the budget hearings. So unless one attended the hearings, it's impossible to actually get any information about the county's financial condition.

I can't help but wonder why the county is laying off workers before meeting with all of the workers' unions to discuss how to address any budget shortfall. I also wonder why the county is budgeting for a return to a 40-hour workweek when the county workers were willing to take furloughs and work 36 hours a week this current fiscal year. The county could work up two alternatives -- staffing levels and salary costs with and without the 40-hour week -- and discuss that with the unions.

If the county wants to keep offices open 5 days a week, it could do that and still have workers on a 36-hour week: they just wouldn't all be furloughed on the same day of the week. Many state offices are staffed by workers who work fewer than five days a week, yet the offices stay open during core business hours M-F. It's a little more complicated for managers and may require more cross-training, but in most offices, it can be done (been there).

Speaking of 40-hour weeks -- has anyone done an analysis of the demand for county services on Fridays? It may be that some offices have very little demand for services on Fridays while others have more.

As Supervisor Novelli acknowledged June 4, laying off an employee has a ripple effect in the community that hurts businesses, schools and more. A 2010 CalPERS study using a widely accepted econometric model (IMPLAN) showed that every dollar CalPERS pays in benefits creates $1.55 in direct, indirect and induced economic and revenue benefit in Amador County. It's pretty safe to assume that county worker pay does much the same thing. Workers use their income to buy goods and services (and pay taxes), and the businesses who receive those funds then buy goods and services, pay employees who then spend money -- and pay taxes.

So in the long run, county layoffs hurt our local economy and reduce county tax income. And they reduce the level of services available to the public (that is, after all, why the workers are there in the first place). 

The laid-off workers have been given the option of working the next three weeks or taking severance pay. If the county gets the ERAF money and restores some or all of the positions, those who take the pay may not come back. If they don't, the county will then lose the investment it has made in their training as well as their institutional knowledge.

At Monday's meeting, I couldn't figure out why the county is not including in the budget the $1.1 million it expects to get in ERAF funds so it can keep its trained and experienced people working and maintain current levels of public service. If the money doesn't come through, the county could adjust the budget and if necessary, lay people off then. They'll know early in the fiscal year.

Since there are no budget documents online, it's impossible to see where else the county may be making cuts. Are the supervisors cutting the funds they budget for discretionary spending? (They didn't cut any of their own staff.) Are they cutting services that benefit small groups of people as well as large groups? Are we still paying $56,000 a year to kill coyotes and other predators while we close our branch libraries? Is there fair geographic distribution of cuts -- or is the Upcountry, which is losing its librarians in Pine Grove and Buckhorn -- suffering more than other areas?

There's just no way to know. And the more I think about this, the more questions I have. If you too have questions, please join me in asking for greater transparency and more public consultation about the county budget.