MERCED — In the run-up to possible federal funding cuts, the Housing Authority of the County of Merced recently issued layoff notices to five union employees and reduced its hours.
If politicians in Washington fail to reach an agreement on taxes and spending by the end of the month, automatic domestic spending cuts kick in Jan. 1.
The so-called "fiscal cliff" could mean, among other things, that housing authorities across the country see reductions of more than 8 percent to their annual federal funding, according to housing authority officials.
At the same time, the housing authority in Merced has issued five layoff notices and changed its hours of operation to span from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It had been open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and was closed every other Friday.
A notice on the door reads: "Agency employees will continue to work regular hours. Morning closures are designed to give the agency's reduced staff time to catch up on backlogs and process applications in a timely manner."
Housing authority officials declined to comment.
The agency's layoff notices are "premature panic," according to Nancy Vinson, business agent with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The housing authority employs about 38 nonmanagerial and confidential employees represented by the AFSCME, Local 2703, AFL-CIO.
The union rejected a housing authority request in November for each worker to take 26 furlough days, Vinson said.
As a result, layoff notices were issued to two inspectors, two clerks and a receptionist.
"If they want to come to the table and start talking about real numbers and give us the real truth, then we're there," she said. "Until they do that they can't expect us to blindly agree to a 10 percent cut or laying people off."
"I've seen other housing authorities who have not reacted like this, and they're balancing their budgets," she added.
In Stanislaus County, there have been no layoffs, said Bill Fagan, housing authority executive director in Modesto.
However, he said he knows of a number of housing authorities in the state who have recently had to make some painful decision about staffing.
"Fortunately, we have some reserves," he said. "If it's getting close, I wouldn't run it down to the last nickel."
Federal allocations for county housing authorities have been unpredictable in recent years, with a decline in overall funding, he added.
Now housing authorities are looking at the most dramatic cuts in recent history.
"It could mean laying off people in the future," Fagan said. "We're not right now. We're waiting to see what's going to happen."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Housing Authority of the County of Merced provides several services, according to its website:
The agency provides 549 units of conventional low-income housing, including 98 single-family homes.
The agency provides assistance to qualifying low-income residents so that they can buy homes.
The agency helps low-income children participate in a variety of after-school programs and activities, including 4-H, Girl Scouts, Club Live and Friday Night Live.
The agency provides affordable office space to small businesses and nonprofit organizations at the O'Banion Learning Center.
The agency manages four migrant housing centers in the county -- 48 units in Los Banos, 59 units in Atwater, 49 units in Merced and a Planada Center, which is closed for reconstruction.