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A spirit of sacrifice sweeps over Redlands City Hall

City leaders asked civilian workers to accept furloughs as an alternative to layoffs. Police officers surprised many -- and angered counterparts in other cities -- by volunteering for them too.

February 19, 2009|David Kelly

When officials in Redlands eyed their balance sheets last fall, they realized something big and ugly was headed their way.

Sales tax revenue had plummeted, property taxes had cratered and suddenly this middle-class city of Victorian homes and orange groves faced a $3.9-million deficit that seemed to grow by the day.

"It became evident that this was something unprecedented," said City Manager N. Enrique Martinez. "We could see revenues were going into the tank."

Unlike many cities facing similar challenges, Redlands acted swiftly to order deep budget cuts.

When they proved insufficient, city leaders sat down with the four civilian employee unions. Promising no layoffs through June, Martinez asked them to take 10 days of unpaid furlough before July 1. The unions quickly accepted, offering none of the bickering or protest seen elsewhere.

Most surprising of all, officials said, was that the police union asked to take part in the deal.

"I have worked for seven cities, and I have never seen the police volunteer for furloughs," Martinez said. "There was not the typical whining about how the bad guys are going to show up and take over or how the sky was going to fall."

The police union overwhelmingly agreed to take 66 hours of furlough by June 30, and firefighters accepted a similar plan last month.

"I have no doubt there are people in my business who are watching and wondering if we were naive, that maybe we should have dug in our heels," said Police Chief Jim Bueermann. "We could have played the public safety card, but these are different times, and we are not an island."

Bueermann said two of his men were confronted by police officers from other cities.

"They berated them for setting an inappropriate precedent," he said. "They were aggressively critical of our position and said it would make it harder for police everywhere."

Police union president Derik Ohlson said no one is untouchable.

"It's a rarity for a police union to go along with something like this," he said, but added, "We have a lot of officers who see the bigger picture. A lot of cities have old-school Jimmy Hoffa-style unions and that doesn't always work. Pointing fingers at each other in hard times doesn't solve any problems."

Cpl. Kelvin Bryant agreed.

"It can't be me, me, me all of the time," he said. "Taking furloughs means others don't get laid off. People are losing their homes, their cars, their jobs. It's the wrong time to be against the city."

That sentiment isn't universally shared.

In neighboring San Bernardino, the city is locked in a battle with the police union. The union rejected a request for a 10% pay cut, prompting the city to give 49 officers layoff notices. Last Friday, the city proposed furloughs instead of layoffs, a plan that the union vowed to battle in court if passed.

Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff and Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco have also balked at demands that they cut 10% of their budgets, saying public safety would be jeopardized.

"It's a lot of money," said Riverside County Assistant Dist. Atty. Kelly Keenan. "It would definitely hurt our ability to prosecute cases."

Redlands officials say acting on the economic downturn early allowed their city of 60,000 to avoid layoffs and avoid much of the acrimony that has engulfed other communities.

"We really started planning for this a year ago," said Debbie Scott-Leistra, the city's human resources director. "We decided on furloughs and went to the unions. They saw the writing on the wall and liked the guarantee of no layoffs. It wasn't contentious. It wasn't like pulling teeth."

It wasn't easy on city workers either. Unpaid furloughs hurt. Redlands' roughly 540 employees are losing hundreds of dollars a month from each paycheck.

"I'll lose $2,000 this year," said Rob Bird, who works for the city water department. "We service workers generally live paycheck to paycheck. That money is the tax on your house, a car payment. My daughter plays club soccer and that pays her fees."

Archie Washington, a supervisor in the solid waste department, says he'll lose about $400 or $500 a month.

"I'm a one-income family. My wife stays home with the kids, and I want to continue that," he said. "I don't live beyond my means, but it's going to be a little tight. Still, I'll take the furlough because I don't want to see anyone laid off."

Other workers said they would stop eating out, dump their satellite-radio subscriptions and cancel premium cable TV channels.

Martinez meets with city employees each week to answer their questions.

Last week, he told a crowd of about 100 workers gathered at a city depot that he would have to cut at least $5.5 million in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. He said he would probably be asking for additional furloughs when that happens.

"I know how difficult it is to take 10 days off without pay," he said. "I'm doing it too. But we don't know where the bottom is. It's like jumping out of an airplane and not knowing when the parachute will open."

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