If you think government doesn't do as much as it used to, you're right.
Cities and counties have shrunk by more than 2,300 employees since the recession slammed into the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Those government agencies, spanning Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, expect to spend $618 million less on services this year than they did two years ago.
Some results: When people call, police officers might take longer to show up -- if they come at all. Parks aren't as tidy. People expect longer lines at government counters, which open later and close early. Stanislaus County libraries don't open at all anymore on Fridays and Sundays.
"I wish I could say something good and happy, but these are real tough times in government," said professor Bob Benedetti, director of University of the Pacific's Jacoby Center for Public Service, which works with local governments in search of solutions to difficult problems. "This is a time when people are asking, 'Do we need libraries and parks anymore?' "
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Agencies in the three-county Northern San Joaquin Valley have downsized their staffs more than 12 percent, and some say they'll have to let go even more employees. Of those lucky enough to keep government jobs, many are bringing home slimmer paychecks after agreeing to salary cuts or, more frequently, furloughs.
Forty percent of all employees will take unpaid days off in the current fiscal year, amounting to more than 81,000 shifts. That means even longer lines and less help for the public, and more unkempt grass and deferred maintenance.
The Modesto Bee's survey covers 23 agencies responding to California Public Records Act requests, though Atwater, Dos Palos and Merced County did not respond.
Of the 23, all but three will spend more than they make this year in their general funds, which pay for traditional services such as law enforcement, firefighting and parks. Lodi and Livingston should break even, Stockton hopes to come out $100,000 ahead, and the rest are underfunded by a combined $37 million.
Most will rely on reserves for budget balancing. Over two years, the agencies will have tapped that source for $132 million, leaving only $156 million in reserve accounts, they report.
Cities and counties are cash-starved mostly because of plummeting sales and property taxes, as well as more dollars intercepted by state government. An extreme case is Los Banos, where income has dropped 35 percent in two years, from $59.6 million to $39 million.
"I am not aware of any other city that has experienced such a devastating revenue decline," City Manager Steve Rath said.
The Modesto Bee's review suggests more agencies are turning to furloughs to plug budget gaps. Last year, 4,216 employees among the 23 agencies were subjected to forced time off without pay amounting to almost 41,000 workdays, compared with more than 6,900 workers this year, resulting in 81,288 missed workdays.
Stanislaus County's across-the-board, mandatory furloughs account for more than half the total. All but one of its 3,639 employees must take off 13 nonpaid days, after negotiations with 13 employee unions conducted together, in one big room.
"The employee groups were wise enough to understand that these programs save jobs," said Jody Hayes, county deputy executive officer. The agreement may be unique because it will extend through another fiscal year, ending July 1, 2012.
It's catching on in several cities, such as Ceres, Riverbank, Turlock and Gustine, where furloughs are drastically up this year. Ordered to slice costs by 10 percent, most Ceres unions preferred furloughs, finance director Sheila Cumberland said.
Ripon, however, tried furloughs last year and didn't like the result. City Council members this year imposed 9 percent reductions in pay or benefits despite police union opposition.
"Be happy you've got a job; a lot of people don't have them," City Administrator Leon Compton said.
Merced never warmed to furloughs because "downsides outweigh the upsides," City Manager John Bramble said. It's a question of service quality, he said, and it makes little sense to order firefighters to stay home, to save money, while paying others overtime to meet public safety standards. "That defeats the purpose," Bramble said.
But Merced's reliance on reserves grew from $2.2 million last year to $4 million this year. The city could run out of rainy-day money in three years at that rate, Bramble acknowledged.
Desire to protect reserves
Despite heavily leaning on reserves, many north valley cities appear committed to keeping those funds relatively strong. For example, Newman has socked away the equivalent of 62 percent of its annual general fund costs and Turlock nearly 59 percent.
Others with comparatively strong reserves include Tracy (58 percent), Escalon (52 percent) and Livingston (44 percent).
Living more dangerously are Manteca (0.7 percent), which doesn't have a formal reserves policy; San Joaquin County (2.9 percent); Gustine (4.2 percent); and Riverbank (6.8 percent). Stockton's policy requires setting aside 10 percent of its total budget revenue, but that city's reserves come to less than 1.5 percent.
Earlier this year, Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour persuaded council members to drop Modesto's policy requiring that reserves be stocked at 7 percent of general fund expenses, because he feared the amount would drop too low if tied to the ever-dropping budget. The council agreed not to let it dip below $7 million.
Livingston City Manager Richard Warne said things aren't as bleak there because leaders resisted bulking up in good times, so there weren't as many positions to cut when hard times came. As a result, people enjoy essentially the same services, and City Hall has suffered no layoffs and no furloughs, he said.
It's similar in Waterford, which contracts for building, planning, legal, engineering and some financial services. "We were leanly staffed, so when the downturn occurred we had a bit more options than most," City Administrator Chuck Deschenes said.
Livingston's comparatively stingy retirement helps keep down costs as well, Warren said.
Agencies' swelling obligations to retirement funds "are sitting out there like big bombs waiting to explode and bankrupt their budgets," said UOP's Benedetti. Stanislaus County leaders, for example, are terrified that its $44 million obligation could swell an extra $15 million to $20 million next year.
Leaders recently adopted less generous terms for future employees, though the county, like most agencies, hasn't hired many in the past couple of years and doesn't expect to in the near future.
Riverbank soon will revisit its retirement package, City Manager Rich Holmer said. And employees should expect to pay more toward health coverage and retirement next year, he said.
A few agencies are saving money in the long term by offering early retirement buyouts, with 118 leaving Stockton, 59 pulling out of Modesto and 48 quitting Stanislaus County. Benedetti said higher-level observers warn that a brain drain is coming, leaving less experienced people to run things.
Most painful, many say, are layoffs. North valley cities and counties have shed at least 675 workers, The Modesto Bee review shows, and Stanislaus County expects to show the door to 38 more this year.