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Financially Strapped Oxnard Chops 16 1/2 Jobs

October 26, 1989|CAROL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The biggest city in Ventura County is in the throes of a devastating financial crisis, with budget cutbacks reducing police patrols, closing fire stations and forcing the layoffs of at least four top managers.

With little discussion, the Oxnard City Council voted unanimously this week to reduce department budgets and eliminate 16 1/2 city positions to slash this year's budget by $1 million and save about $1.5 million annually.

"The medicine to cure the problem is like any other medicine," Councilwoman Geraldine Furr said. "It isn't pleasant to take, but it's necessary."

The decision follows the discovery three weeks ago that estimates of revenues for the 1988-89 fiscal year were about $2 million too high. It also was disclosed that the city had exceeded its 1988-89 budget by $850,000.

City officials scrambled to the reserve fund to replace the $2.8 million--shrinking that fund from $5.8 million to $3 million.

The reserve fund, which held more than $12 million just four years ago, is set aside for emergency expenses, such as buying a new fire truck should one be wrecked or paying for unexpected litigation.

The city hopes to institute the budget cuts and the personnel reductions, eight of them managerial, by Jan. 1.

Among the employees who have lost or are losing their jobs are Assistant Fire Chief Harold Conley, Assistant Police Chief Richard Staniland, Assistant to the City Manager Ken Hampian and Deputy City Atty. David Kennedy.

The city will try to transfer other employees, such as public information officer Kitty Dill, to different jobs, City Manager David Mora said.

Other cutbacks include reducing residential street sweeping from once a month to once every two months, limiting the operating hours of the Carnegie Art Museum and discontinuing support of all festivals except the Strawberry Festival and the Fourth of July Fireworks.

These decreases followed $1.9 million in cutbacks that the council instituted in June.

The Fire Department has been forced since then to occasionally close stations because of manpower shortages. The firefighters union's 87 members have worked without a contract for about four months, unable to reach agreement with the city.

And police response time for top priority calls--when a suspect is in the vicinity, a victim is injured or evidence needs to be preserved--has risen from less than 4.5 minutes during the 1986-87 fiscal year to 5.7 minutes, Police Chief Bob Owens said.

During the 1986-87 fiscal year, an average of 16 1/2 police units patrolled the city of 128,000 people. In the last three months, an average of 12 1/2 squads have protected city streets.

At the same time, Owens said, there are indications that the city's crime rate, which has dropped for 10 years, is rising again.

"I think the public ought to be worried," he said.

Mora said city residents will not feel the new cutbacks as forcibly as they did when the June reductions were imposed.

"What I'm gutting here is the organization," Mora said. "I'm getting hard-pressed to make any more administrative cuts that don't leave us decimated."

Mora said he spent last week briefing employees about the situation, attempting to dispel rumors of widespread layoffs that had filled City Hall in recent weeks.

Morale among employees is "zilch," Councilwoman Ann Johs said.

City leaders are worried that Oxnard has a credibility problem with residents, Mora said.

In a little-boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, Oxnard officials in 1985 imposed a utility tax after telling residents that city coffers were running dry.

But when the city subsequently installed a new computer system, it found more than $12 million squirreled away in different funds. One city councilman was recalled.

This is different, council members warned.

"There really is a shortage of money," said Councilwoman Dorothy Maron.

Levying a new tax is a strong if politically unappetizing possibility.

"I think that's probably the only thing we can do," Johs said.

The city has appointed an ad hoc citizens advisory committee on finances that will report to the council in January--leaving enough time to put a tax measure on the June ballot.

The city, which prides itself on being the only local government in the county to court development, has yet to see the returns from many of its projects. It is going through a transitional phase, Mayor Nao Takasugi said.

But while all involved agree that Oxnard must make some changes, there is little agreement on the reasons for the crisis.

For the last four years, the council has made a "conscious decision" to draw from the reserves in order to balance the budget, Mora said.

The budgets have increased because of an extensive street repair program, according to city officials.

"I think it came as a complete shock to all of us on the council," Takasugi said, referring to the financial crisis.

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