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Cities Find There's Light in Darkness : Cost-Cutting: City Hall closures one day a week or every other Friday lead to significant savings in maintenance, utility bills and ride-share subsidies.


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — They've slapped taxes on utility bills, increased fees for dog licenses and building permits, sent hiring into the deep freeze and laid off employees.

Now, in the unending search for new ways to cut expenses, financially strapped cities in the San Gabriel Valley are trying a new concept: dark Fridays.

By closing City Hall the last working day of the week, some cities have discovered, they can save thousands of dollars in utility and maintenance bills and ride-share subsidies.

"It's a win-win-win situation," said Jeffrey Allred, assistant city manager of La Verne, which went on a four-day week a year and a half ago. "The budget wins, our employees get Fridays off, and the public gets longer hours of service between Monday and Thursday."

So far, seven San Gabriel Valley cities--Pomona, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South Pasadena, La Verne, Duarte and Azusa--have elected to shut down on Fridays. Pasadena City Hall is closed every other Friday, and Covina and San Marino close early on Fridays.

The new system makes for a few inconveniences.

Builders planning to work on weekends must remember to get a building permit by Thursday. Customers wanting to pay their water bills or check city documents in the city clerk's office must do so by Thursday.

"I've gotten a few calls on Fridays from exasperated constituents," Pasadena City Councilman William Paparian said. "They don't realize that City Hall is closed, and they have some complaints about a trash pickup or a broken tree branch."

But for the most part, dark Fridays have come with few public complaints.

"A lot of people are very aware of what the city is going through in terms of budget woes," said Janet Whaley, acting director of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. "They're more supportive than they would have been before."

Pasadena, currently facing a $9.3-million budget shortfall, will save almost $150,000 a year if it continues on the so-called "9-80" track, meaning city offices are open 80 hours in nine days during any two-week period. The City Council initiated the idea in April as a six-month pilot program, which will be evaluated in October.

Where do the savings come from?

By closing one day a week, or one day every other week, cities can proportionately reduce the energy costs of lighting and air conditioning city offices, officials say. They also reduce janitorial and cleaning services by one or two days every two weeks.

But the big savings is often in the reduced costs of state-mandated ride-share programs. The South Coast Air Quality Management District requires most employers with more than 100 employees to maintain incentives, such as car pools and bus passes, to keep the average number of passengers in cars traveling to and from work above 1.5.

The AQMD allocates out a proportion of the motor vehicle registration fees collected in each city to pay for such programs, but it isn't enough to cover all the expenses, Pasadena Public Works Director Cynthia Kurtz said.

Before Pasadena elected to shut down every other Friday, the city received $100,000 a year to run a $181,000 program of car pooling, free bus passes and gasoline subsidies.

"We were spending every dime we were getting," Kurtz said.

But with the new schedule, which reduces the average daily ridership of city employees by 10% and allows the city to surpass its goal of 1.5 riders per vehicle, there is no longer a need to offer the same expensive subsidies, Kurtz said. Now the city has more than $80,000 in ride-share funds, as well as about $50,000 in utility and maintenance cost savings, to put back into the general fund, she said.

Some cities are extracting the additional benefit of offering compensation in the form of shorter hours to employees who, because of longstanding municipal budget troubles, have not received pay raises in two or three years.

City workers in La Verne and Pomona, for example, now work four nine-hour days instead of five eight-hour days every week in return for forgoing pay raises until next year.

"It was a way of providing some consideration to employees without costing the city any additional money," Pomona Finance Director Jose Sanchez said.

Not all municipal workers are pleased with the schedule change.

About 250 Pasadena employees have sought arbitration in their challenge to the city's action, which they say was done without consulting them. At issue is an extra hour on holidays, says Guido De Rienzo, of Local 858 of the Assn. of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose Pasadena members are blue-collar workers in the Public Works and Water and Power Departments.

If the workers are asked to work nine-hour days, De Rienzo said, they should be compensated for nine hours on non-working holidays, such as July 4 and Labor Day.

"Our contract specifically states that we work eight-hour days, five days a week," he said.

But the union's major complaint, De Rienzo said, was that the city acted without consulting them.

"It wasn't just what they were attempting to do but how they did it," he said.

Officials from other cities have considered all of the inducements and decided that, all in all, they like things the way they are.

"We're a service organization," said Glendora City Manager Art Cook, whose city is sticking to a five-day work week. "We don't want to curtail service to our customers."

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