State

With much in limbo, Oakdale delays budget vote

OAKDALE -- With negotiations with two of its five employee bargaining groups not settled, the City Council Monday night decided to delay a vote on its 2009-10 budget for two weeks.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd of about 110, the council heard eight people comment on the need to retain as many police officers as possible in the face of a proposed budget that would necessitate the axing of five or six officers from the 26-person force.

"The reduction of officers not only puts the citizens of Oakdale at risk, but also the remaining officers at risk," said Sgt. Michael Eggener, the vice president of the police officers' union.

The proposed budget for 2009-10 is $9 million, a 16.6 percent decrease from the $10.8 million general fund budget of 2008-09. The council called for the cuts based on a drop in sales and property tax revenues combined with increases in general fund expenditures.

To achieve the cuts, the city asked all employees in its five bargaining groups to cut roughly 15 percent from their budgets, starting with a 5 percent wage reduction for all employees.

Three groups had reached budget-cut agreements with the council before Monday's meeting, with the classified employees group and the Police Department yet to reach agreements.

The Police Department initially responded with a plan that would have reduced its operating expenses by nearly $600,000, or about four times what the council was seeking.

But because that plan did not include a 5 percent wage reduction, but achieved the slash in part through the elimination of embattled Police Chief Marty West, the council would not consider the proposal.

One speaker asked that the council put off reducing the force until the city knows its share of the public safety portion of the federal stimulus package.

But Mayor Ferrell Jackson said waiting for such a windfall probably would not pay off, because the $1 billion stimulus package already has $8 billion in requests and it is unlikely small towns will be a priority when the money is doled out.

"We can't pass a budget based on hopes," Jackson said. "We have to pass a budget based on reality."

Coming to light during the meeting was a need for future negotiations to take place face to face rather than by e-mail or letter.

"It's time to lock people in a room and let them go at it," said Councilman Michael Brennan. "People need to sit together and hash this out."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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