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City layoff picture becomes clearer

Talk of inevitable layoffs in Modesto City Hall circled for months with numbers but no names.

This week, the city's budget crisis got a face.

Tuesday, Deputy Public Works Director Firoz Vohra made a late appeal to keep his job overseeing traffic planning. His position is one of 10 being cut because of a drop in gas tax revenue.

City Clerk Stephanie Lopez followed City Council procedures and cut him off after he spoke for five minutes.

"After 21 years, if you can only give me five minutes, that says something," Vohra said as he left the lectern and returned to a seat in the council chamber.

The exchange closed a nearly five-hour meeting Vohra sat through to make his case that his experience would save money and improve safety.

"After 21 years, it's a little tough to cut him off because he's earned his right working for the citizens," Councilman Dave Lopez said. "But at the same time, the discussions have already happened and he knew that. It wasn't the time."

Other signs about how looming cuts will change the city surfaced at Monday's Planning Commission meeting. Commissioners wanted to take more time to refine an ordinance that gives residents opportunities to appeal building renovations in their neighborhoods.

Planning Division Manager Patrick Kelly told them that a delay likely would scuttle the ordinance because budget cuts will force his staff to put off that kind of long-range work.

"I didn't want to resort to this," Kelly said. Commissioners passed the ordinance, one of them saying he changed his mind after Kelly's statement.

Private employers have faced difficult decisions about downsizing and layoffs over the past two years while the region's foreclosure crisis expanded and the recession set in.

Those trends finally have landed at City Hall, which had averted the worst cuts until this month.

It's a tense time in city government, with labor groups casting final votes on a furlough proposal that saves jobs but costs employees about 5 percent of their wages over the next three months.

Four rank-and-file unions approved the proposal, meaning police officers, firefighters, nonsworn employees in the public safety departments and blue collar workers will participate in the furloughs.

Two management bargaining groups — the Modesto Confidential and Management Association and the Modesto Police Management Association — rejected the furloughs and likely will see layoffs earlier than the unions participating in furloughs.

Notices were issued last week to MPMA members who could be laid off or demoted. MCMA members on Wednesday were taking another vote on the furloughs.

Divided over furloughs

City leaders use words like "proud" when they describe their feelings about the unions that supported the furloughs. It's not uncommon to hear "disappointed" when they talk about the management groups that turned down the proposals.

"These are people who should be leaders for the whole organization," Mayor Jim Ridenour said about the management groups. "They should be the ones standing up doing what they have to do to lead the rest of the organization."

But the management groups could be responding to signals that their numbers will be thinned as the city slices an extra $12 million to $15 million in spending for the budget year that begins July 1.

"There will be cuts," City Manager Greg Nyhoff said. "Yes, I think they heard that. We're going to slim down management in these very difficult times because crime still is going on, we still have fires and we have to maintain the roads."

Council members back that objective.

"It's actually that middle section that I think is where a lot of the money can be saved. Unless we're willing to compromise the services to citizens, we have to keep the soldiers on the street," Lopez said.

Members of the management groups can be demoted to lower-ranking positions and retain their seniority over more recently hired employees. Police lieutenants and sergeants, for example, can be demoted and keep their tenure over officers.

MPMA and MCMA representatives did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. All employees have until Friday to apply for an early retirement program that could reduce the number of layoffs expected to occur this spring.

Vohra is considered an executive and he is not part of a labor group. His goodbye stuck with one union leader who sat through Tuesday's meeting to represent blue-collar street maintenance employees who are losing their jobs in the same batch as Vohra.

"I've got to deal with all my members when they say 'What can you do for us?' " said Modesto City Employees Association President Tom McCarthy. "Sometimes I have to say 'Nothing'. And that hit home with me.

"It's wearing on all of us," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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