City Council Passes Furloughs, Leaves Budget Hole

Divided vote on short-term plan that hits workers is a precursor to drama for the new budget year created by public health closures

A divisive City Council decision late Wednesday to furlough more than 1,000 city employees starting next week is expected to save Santa Fe $1.4 million through June. Yet, after a five-hour meeting with a vote that came just before 10 pm, and a plan to take other measures such as a spending freeze, a hiring freeze, and changes to insurance policies, the city still has to come up with an estimated $16.5 million to close the anticipated budget gap for the fiscal year that wraps in two months.

And that's not even getting started on what needs to happen to get plans in place for the new budget year.

Many city councilors were noticeably shaken by the proposal on the table Wednesday that they said was developed without their input. They debated and argued on a livestream posted on the city's YouTube channel in front of an online audience of over 200 viewers, embroiled in a tense discussion about a resolution the mayor called the "least bad" of bad options now that the city has lost and expects to lose more revenue because of statewide public health orders.

Unlike regular city council meetings where members of the public are given two minutes each to air their grievances or share their comments in front of the council and everyone else in attendance, for the online meeting, the public was asked to submit comments ahead of time.

"If this was the best of five worst options, it would have still been nice to know what the other four were," says Jesse Bartlett, an assistant operations manager with the city's tourism department. He tells SFR this is the comment he would have made if the meeting had been held at City Hall.

Like most other workers in the tourism department, Bartlet is bracing to lose 40% of his work hours in a furlough. He admits he'd expected his department to be one of the first to face cuts, but he also expected a more candid process in developing the furlough plan.

"What I'm really disappointed about most is that there were so many councilors left in the dark about what the other options were," he says.

The governing body finally passed the furlough resolution in a 5-4 vote around 10 pm.

Councilors Michael Garcia from District 2, Chris Rivera from District 3, Joanne Vigil Coppler from District 4 and Renee Villarreal from District 1 voted against the resolution. Councilors Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez from District 4, Signe Lindell from District 1, Carol Romero-Wirth from District 2, Roman Abeyta from District 3, and the mayor voted in favor.

The vote means nearly all municipal employees will be working at least four hours less per week over the next two months. Some, particularly those who work for departments or facilities that are closed or whose functions have been limited due to the COVID-19 health crisis, will be losing as many as 16 hours from their work weeks. For these employees, the furlough means a 40% reduction in pay.

In his introduction to the measure, Webber said that the goal was to be fiscally responsible with tax payer dollars and also share the burden among all city employees with the exception of most police officers and firefighters. Lieutenants, captains, the police chief and other people in administrative positions in the Santa Fe police and fire departments, however, will receive a four-hour furlough.

Yet the councilors who voted against the measure took issue with which employees would bear the deepest cuts, citing examples of employees making as little as $13 an hour who will be subject to the most severe decreases in hours while other employees making twice to three times that much will only lose four hours of pay.

They also called out a lack of clear communication between city staff and the governing body before the resolution came up for a vote.

City management did not give the governing body the opportunity to participate in the decision making process or make amendments to the resolution. This is different than most resolutions, which typically bounce between councilors at committee meetings before the entire governing body convenes for a vote and are subject to amendments during council meetings themselves.

City Attorney Erin McSherry and City Manager Jarel Lapan Hill explained that city personnel rules delegate the responsibility to propose furlough plans to the relevant city department. In this case, because all departments are impacted, that responsibility fell to the city manager.

City staff were required to present a plan to employee unions before presenting it to the governing body, and are also required to give at least a 14-day notice to employees before furloughs can be implemented, McSherry said. If the city council were to reject the plan, they would have start this process from scratch and go back to day one of the notice period.

The mayor added that given the tight time frame in which the budget has to be balanced, they had to get furloughs in order as soon as possible.

The city notified employees on April 21 of upcoming furloughs that will begin on May 6 with the vote of the governing body.

"What I've learned from this is that when you want to slam dunk your plan, use up the clock so that there is no room for creative collaboration, only the plan of the victor," Councilor Vigil Coppler said before voting no. "I've learned from this to leave the policy makers out of the real discussions. I've also learned that we're going to keep the high earners high, the low earners low when it comes to losing money, and the lower paid employees are the ones who do the work."

Coppler, who has a professional background in human resources and has clashed with Webber on staff decisions in the past, said she had asked to be part of the negotiations and had come up with her own plan taking all of the complex factors into account that she believed to be a more equitable solution, but was never invited to the table and her plan was not considered.

The city is currently paying COVID-19 administrative leave to employees who are not able to work regular hours due to the public health emergency. This leave, which was passed as part of the mayor's emergency declaration in March, is costing the city around $300,000 every two weeks and will continue until furloughs go into effect, staff explained.

This is money that the city will have to recoup to balance the budget.

McSherry told councilors rules around furloughs require that all employees within the same "organizational unit" in city government are subject to the same furlough, which could mean everyone in a department or everyone performing the same function within a department gets their hours cut by the same number in the interest of fairness. This does not take the actual salary of those individual employees into account, however, which caused several councilors to worry that the plan unfairly places the burden on the shoulders of those earning the least.

The plan implements 16-hour furloughs for employees in departments that are currently not working up to capacity due to the COVID-19 shutdowns or where facilities are closed, such as parking, recreational facilities and libraries.

Yet questions from Rivera revealed that the heads of many of these departments have been reassigned to other roles, such as staffing the new Midtown shelter, and are only receiving four hour furloughs even while their employees take a 16-hour cut.

Villarreal said she would have liked to get a more detailed overview of all of the other options that city staff said they had considered. She also said separate pay cuts to council members and upper management in addition to the proposed furloughs should have been part of the solution. Garcia and Rivera both pledged to donate their salaries to impacted city employees.

"Because of the inconsistencies and inequities of the plan that was proposed to us tonight and since we weren't given scenarios in fully understanding our options I cannot support the plan presented," Villarreal said before also voting no.

Garcia asked for a revision of the plan that would spread the burden more evenly by implementing eight-hour furloughs across the board. In response city staff explained that this would significantly impact the shift schedules of departments in charge of water, trash pick-up, and other essential services, and would likely lead to disruptions in these services for residents.

Even those councilors who voted in favor of the measure expressed frustration that city staff had not involved the governing body in the decision making process. But they also brought up the fact that the longer the city spends coming to a decision, the greater the city's negative balance gets. "We do have some authority here, but there's a cost to it," said Romero-Wirth.

Lindell urged councilors to focus their efforts on the 2021 budget, where the governing body will have much greater decision making power.

The furlough plan passed by the council only takes the city up to the end of the fiscal year in June, and Lindell noted, the city will likely have to make even tougher long-term budget decisions for 2021.

"The sooner we move on this the sooner we can move on the real discussion and the real meat of the work we've got to do and that's pass a budget … this is going to be extremely difficult and the more time we spend on a temporary measure, like tonight, the less time we have to spend on the bigger longer more important picture which is the fiscal year 2021 budget," Abeyta, chair of the city Finance Committee, agreed in closing.

Under the plan adopted late Wednesday, 868 employees with an average salary of $24.45 an hour will receive four-hour furloughs, and part time employees will also only be subject to four-hours furlough. Furloughs of 16 hours will also go into effect for 180 employees with an average salary of $20.20.

As members of the governing body and city staff hinted throughout the meeting, this is likely only the first of many changes to city government. Councilors wondered aloud whether the city will have to pick and choose which facilities to reopen in the long run or shut down bus lines to come up with a 2021 budget. They discussed the possibility of pay cuts for management positions and deeper furloughs that might be needed.

But for now the city's top priority is to get through the next two months, and Santa Fe residents can expect not to have libraries or recreational facilities open until at least the end of the fiscal year.

The budget that begins July 1 is supposed to be approved by next month under normal circumstances. The city will not receive actual GRT data from the last two months until May.

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