Elisabeth Nardi, 8/7/10
Walnut Creek leaders’ ability to bridge a $20 million deficit and balance a budget in June was based partly on an offer of early retirement to employees older than 50. It was unknown at that time how many employees would take the deal.
By the beginning of July, 12 people had agreed to a retirement package, giving them $9,000 a year for three years, in addition to standard city retirement benefits. All had to leave their jobs by the end of July; some had been there for decades.
Though the budget was adopted several weeks ago, its effects continue to unfold.
Municipal workers from across the region are feeling similar pain; they have been laid off, furloughed and have had their hours cut. It’s no different in Walnut Creek, where the situation is sapping city workers’ morale.
To take early retirement, employees had to be 50 or older, work for the city for five years and be invested in the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The $9,000 is supposed to cover a portion of health insurance.
“We were hoping for a little more, but this helps — it’s not trivial,” said City Manager Gary Pokorny.
Employees taking retirement came from nearly every department, including the police, where one sworn officer took the package. That person will be replaced because certain positions cannot remain vacant, Pokorny said. As for the other positions, five of the 11 will be replaced and five of the jobs will be frozen and left vacant. The future of one position remains undecided, he said.
Pokorny estimates the resulting savings will be less than $800,000. But for now, city jobs may be somewhat stable, he said.
“It all depends on what happens,” he said. “If there was some further catastrophic drop-off in the economy, then we will see.”
The city has laid off 32 people, frozen more than 30 vacant positions and outsourced work once performed by city custodians.
“What we have discovered is that when you are open and honest and involve (employees) in the evaluation “… if they can understand the logic and see the savings, they tend to be OK,” Pokorny said.
There are limitations to that. City management is still investigating other departments in which layoffs could occur next fiscal year as the city tries to save another $100,000 through outsourcing.
“We will probably wait for the new city manager to be in place before presenting any kind of a plan to the City Council,” said assistant city manager Lorie Tinfow. Pokorny retires in November, though council members hope to name his replacement this month.
With outsourcing hanging over their heads, some employees — already working more after co-workers were laid off — are still scared.
“The stress is super high,” said a city employee who asked not to be identified. “We all have that feeling like anything could happen at any time.”
Pokorny said he understands.
“If someone was in one of those positions where they were laid off, it doesn’t feel good,” he said. “They say, ‘I worked hard and I did my job and “… now because of reasons no one had control over, I am being laid off.’ That doesn’t do anything for morale.”
Some employees look at the $39.9 million library project that opened in July and think that money could have helped save city jobs.
Mayor Sue Rainey said she understands the sentiment, but the city saved to build the library, and it’s built. Filling community needs and controlling spending is a delicate balance, she said.
“The job (of the city) is not totally to be just an employment center,” Rainey said. “But we have great employees so it’s hard when you have to cut any of them.”
To stave off more cuts, city leaders want fundamental budget cures that will create change in the future as well as the short-term. For Walnut Creek and many other cities, that discussion lately involves pensions and happens at the bargaining table.
The city is in negotiations with the Walnut Creek Police Management Association, whose contract expired in June. Association members voted on a tentative contract Wednesday, and are waiting to hear whether the city will accept, said Rocky Lucia, a labor attorney who represents association members.
He wouldn’t talk specifics about the negotiations but said that, like every city these days, when it comes to employees, it comes down to one issue.
“Whether its Walnut Creek, Oakland or Modesto,” Lucia said, “it’s all pensions, pensions, pensions.”