Merced council hears calls to save jobs

Monday night's Merced City Council meeting had one theme: a plea to halt the looming layoffs of 47 city employees.

Among those making that plea were several members of the Southeast Asian community, who came out to ask city officials to keep the Merced Police Department community aide position because it provides translation services, helps bridge the gap between officers and Hmong, Thai and Lao people, and helps facilitate a relationship with the older adults in the community, many of whom don't speak English.

Kia Chang translated for the Hmong people and others during the public hearing on the proposed 2011-2012 city budget.

"If that bridge were to be broken, there will be a huge gap. It will be very hard for the Police Department to reach out to the Southeast Asian community," Chang said, adding that it's a very close-knit community. She said the position "built a trust with Police Department and the Southeast Asian community."

City Manager John Bramble said every department is feeling the impacts of the reduced personnel.

The budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year is $278 million. It includes items such as special revenue funds, community facility district funds, Measure C and general fund dollars.

Bramble said actions had been taken to eliminate the structural deficit, such as cutting all vacant positions in the general fund, using a voluntary severance plan, receiving 5 percent compensation concessions from unrepresented employees and the two bargaining units: fire and the Merced Association of City Employees.

"Unfortunately all of those actions don't make up the $5.5 million structural deficit," he said Monday night, adding that they "gave it a shot but didn't quite get there."

Bramble proposed a budget with a $1.5 million structural deficit, or possibly a $2 million structural deficit "if the vehicle license fees are not reinstated by the state and must receive voter approval."

Bramble said the city is waiting on the state to make that decision.

He said the structural deficit was reduced in the proposed budget based on incorporating the layoff notices: 47 positions citywide and 16 vacant positions that are part of the reduction of personnel.

To a packed audience made up of Southeast Asians, and city personnel and concerned Mercedians, he said the consequences of a $1.5 million structural deficit in the 2011-2012 fiscal year is "the general fund needs to generate an additional 5 percent in new revenues in 2012-2013 to sustain the $1.5 million deficit we have as we are presenting it," he said.

"Each department will be impacted with the loss of personnel and it will take some time to determine how we will absorb the losses," Bramble said.

He stressed that "the proposed budget attempts to provide the highest level of public service that are sustainable over the long term."

In April, the city handed out 64 layoff notices to employees in a range of departments. That number was reduced to 47 layoff notices last month when the city decided it could retain 10 police officers and seven firefighters who had been notified they would lose their jobs.

The 47 layoff notices include 18 police officers, one assistant engineer, four fire fighters, one tree trimmer, two police community aides, one traffic signal lighting technician and others.

The city's general fund is facing a $5.5 million deficit because of lower revenues from sales tax and property taxes, and city departments were asked to slash 15 percent from their budgets.

The public hearing on the budget will continue to the June 20 City Council meeting. A final vote on the budget is expected June 20.

Today, the city will hold its last study session at 5:30 p.m. in the City Council chambers and take a detailed look at the budget, and answer any follow-up questions the city council may have had in a previous study session.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.