Special Section: San Bernardino
SAN BERNARDINO - After months of pressure from skeptical creditors and residents, city officials have prepared a budget plan that could erase a $45.8 million deficit.
But it would come at a cost some call unacceptable: significant cuts to public safety and employee benefits and putting off payments to CalPERS and bond payments.
The City Council on Monday will consider the document - to be presented to U.S. bankruptcy court as its "pendency plan" and serve as a financial plan for fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14 if passed.
In a departure from usual meeting scheduling, a meeting is also planned for Nov. 26.
That's intended to give the council time to pass it and have the city's bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman, work it into a legal filing due Nov. 30.
Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury said at the city's last hearing that the city could be found ineligible for bankruptcy if the pendency plan weren't submitted "soon" and that the Nov. 30 filing - arguing for narrower grounds on which to challenge eligibility - would likely need extensive details from the pendency plan.
"It's a moment of truth, in a word, for our City Council, to get this budget balanced with this pendency plan so we can take it to the judge before the end of the month and be eligible for Chapter 9," said Mayor Pat Morris. "It's a remarkably important document that I think largely shares the pain and should be done the 19th."
But the plan - in addition to suspending some payments for debt and legal claims and continuing already-approved cuts - also includes cuts that may prove unpassable.
Those include benefit reductions for police, fire and other employees, eliminating the firefighting policy known as constant manning and eliminating the positions of 18 officers who have left since summer, when previously vacated positions were frozen. That would leave 260 sworn officers.
Such cuts fly in the face of clear statements from a majority of council members that public safety should not be sacrificed, said City Attorney James F. Penman, pointing to the city's already high crime rate.
"Any person who lives in this town and cares about this town is going to have opposition to the recommendations in the pendency plan because it guts public safety," Penman said. "I think it's likely that the city is going to adopt a pendency plan by the 26th, but I'll be surprised if it's the one that's proposed, and I'll be horrified if it's the one that's proposed."
Councilman John Valdivia said he would listen to counter-arguments Monday, but these cuts to public safety were a "no-go."
"I'd love to have 300 sworn officers in this town, and 130 or so fire, because that's the reason for being a city, is to protect residents, business owners," Valdivia said.
Valdivia said he supported constant manning - maintaining a minimum number of firefighters at every station at all times - rather than the plan's proposal to have Fire Chief Paul Drasil assign firefighters based on perceived fire risk, reducing overtime 35percent and saving a projected $921,375 for the rest of the fiscal year.
"What that essentially is doing is taking the crutch away from an already-disabled city," Valdivia said. "I think that residents' lives would be in jeopardy if we don't have constant manning. That would allow us to give all our decision-making power to our fire chief, and frankly, he's not an elected official in this city."
Instead, Valdivia said, the city should save money by cutting heavily into the ranks of city administrators.
Councilman Rikke Van Johnson said he planned to "drill into" the proposal over the weekend, but he trusted recommendations from the police and fire chiefs.
"They know what's going on in our city," he said. "We've got a lot of trends over a number of years, so they know where you need more resources and where you need less. If something comes up, they still have the flexibility to meet that."
The cuts will be modified if employee unions agree to concessions, according to an analysis by Acting City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, Finance Director Jason Simpson and consultant Michael Busch. They also list protecting health, safety and welfare as the top priority for the plan.
"Given the extremely high crime rates in San Bernardino, the foundation of the city's future must be safety, and the city's actions to assure that grant-funded public safety positions continue to receive funding as grant funds expire reflect the commitment to that," they write. "Due to turnover, the base budget also includes funding to assure that the Police Department has resources to recruit and train new officers to fill vacancies, to take advantage of new staffing grants and to assure that services are available for the community."
Proposed cuts include:
13.989percent benefit concessions for police and fire and 9.304percent reduction for others, shifting pension costs.
Make police and firefighters pay 9 percent "employee share" of pension.
Reduce other post-employment benefits subsidy payments to police retirees to $112 per month given to other retirees.
Defer payments for paid time off.
Defer payments to CalPERS and pension bond payments.
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