Whatever planet we all find ourselves on the week after the 2008 US election, there will be no going back to normal.
Perhaps, by the time you read this, we will live on an icy planet of faux-maverick mayhem in which our economy crumbles into a pathetic police state. Or, maybe, little cartoon bluebirds will be flying around Barack Obama’s head as he sings his platform of national rejuvenation in a deep baritone while multi-culti kids dance in a golden meadow. Probably neither extreme is so immediately visible, but we are headed down one irrevocable path or the other (assuming we’re not waiting for the long fix to come in from Ohio), with roughly half the population having a spring in its step and the other half wearily marching on. No, nothing will ever be the same.
But some things stubbornly refuse to change.
Santa Fe City Councilor Matt Ortiz last week injected himself, McCain-style, into the center of the economic crisis. The main differences are Ortiz is tackling the city’s budget, rather than the nation’s banking and, rather than suspending anything and rolling up his sleeves, he left town with his family and had fellow Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger drop the resolution in his decisive and commanding absence.
The city has calculated a $4 million budget shortfall (funny, it seems like we just had a $4 million windfall—you’d think something would cancel out) for this fiscal year, a shortfall that Ortiz’ resolution claims is the result of the Council being given “different information” during the budgeting process. Translation: Our budget is based on funny numbers. Given that the annual projected increase in gross receipts tax is down by more than 75 percent, we should be encouraged city government is looking to tighten up the reins, right? Then why does Ortiz’ hardball fiscal resolution sound about as impressive as Sarah Palin’s commitment to reform Big Oil?
Maybe it’s because, in predictable Santa Fe City Council fashion, it’s a short-sighted, fear-based move that emphasizes punishing loyal employees and threatening progressive programs over seeking real, creative, short- and long-term fiscal responsibility. Ortiz proposes to immediately stay all raises for city employees, to freeze all hiring of full-time positions outside the realm of public safety and, alarmingly, to have all raises that were granted at the start of this fiscal year “tabulated” and presented to the city manager and “the governing body,” aka the City Council, for possible reconsideration and abolishment.
The resolution recommends the same “reconsideration and abolishment” (printed in bold face, presumably to seem extra scary) treatment for union and non-union managerial and part-time positions, as well as for all contracts for “personal and professional services.” Some supporters of the resolution point to Gov. Bill Richardson’s freeze at the state level—as a result of declining oil and gas revenues—but Richardson will halt hires and raises after Nov. 15, rather than retroactively go after raises that were already granted.
The end of the resolution “charges” the city manager and finance director to meet with union reps, etc. and consider alternatives. But, presumably, finding an alternative way to balance the budget is something the city manager and finance director are already doing, in line with their job descriptions, whereas Ortiz’ job description apparently has grown to include bloviating disguised as action.
One has to wonder if it wasn’t overworked, underpaid staff that led to the “fiscal oversights, accounting inconsistencies and budgeting errors” that created the shortfall to begin with. I wonder—with the vigorous sarcasm that sometimes fails to assert itself in print—just how quickly cracking the paycheck whip, breaking morale and fighting with unions will begin to pay off in a more efficient and productive workplace?
Equally open to question is the strategy of jeopardizing professional contracts, many of which are designed to increase gross receipts revenue for the city. Does threatening tourism, arts-and-culture support or economic-development strategies really save money at the end of the day?
Certainly budgeting needs to be done more wisely and bets must be hedged against a grim economy. But why would the city consider demanding its workers, unions and contractors pay the price first and that alternatives be considered later? If the situation is dire enough to merit Ortiz’ alarmist resolution, an investment of time and energy in developing serious alternatives should at least be empowered in tandem with any freezes rather than pawned off on an “ad hoc committee.”
Finally, there is no timetable or sunset presented for the freeze or for the considerable power that is suggested, although mention of controlling the next fiscal year is made. Given that the Council has proven willing to micromanage and interfere inappropriately with staff, such leverage is simply untenable. Instead, staff should be allowed to do their jobs well in difficult times with the Council’s full support, including appropriate pay.
The resolution was scheduled to be presented to the Finance Committee on Monday, Nov. 3, but Ortiz, the committee's chairman, also missed that meeting and discussion of the matter was postponed.