TURLOCK -- After nearly three hours of City Council negotiations and some sad words from longtime city employees, 23 people lost their jobs late Tuesday.
Among the city's more than 500 full- and part-time workers, the building department was the hardest hit, losing eight people, including its chief building official. That's more than half the department.
Others were the Art Commission's full-time staffer, who coordinates city art shows and children's programs, the city finance director and two senior public works inspectors.
The City Council slashed $5 million as it unanimously approved a $27 million general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But council members said as much as $1 million more in cuts likely will come. The general fund pays for such needs as police and fire services.
Police Chief and interim City Manager Gary Hampton said that would mean 12 to 14 additional layoffs. He advised council members to dip further into their robust $14 million reserve fund.
"There's not another million dollars to find in this budget," Hampton said during the meeting. "I believe any further cutting of the budget could very well put this city in jeopardy of being able to embrace any turnaround of the economy. ... It will take us a year to begin rebuilding."
The council has agreed to use about $2.5 million of that reserve for the 2009-10 budget.
Councilman Ted Howze said he favored looking into furloughs to close the remaining gap. Under that scenario, City Hall would go dark two Fridays a month, Howze said.
Council members did not take action on the remaining deficit but agreed to let Howze and Mayor John Lazar meet over the next two months to brainstorm solutions.
After laying off the largest number of city employees in more than 20 years, the council had more high drama to come.
Howze said he believed a colleague, whom he wouldn't name, had committed "criminal conduct" by releasing closed-session information to the public. He said the council's code of conduct calls for an investigation by City Attorney Phaedra Norton.
Lazar said Howze's concerns dealt with information that then-Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden was a finalist for Turlock city manager. Lazar said he conducted an investigation and did not find any evidence of Howze's claim.
"I don't think we have any reason to ... begin a new witch hunt," Lazar said. "We have too many important issues to deal with."
Howze ultimately advised the council to "sleep on it" and asked for a poll of members next week to see if they would pursue an investigation.
Lazar said that would only widen a wedge between council members that began during last campaign season.
He said an investigation would open the door to looking at "other potential breaches of information."
Lazar said in an interview before the meeting he was told other council members have discussed information about labor negotiations outside closed doors.
"We've endured ... issues that are more important to the city of Turlock than dealing with contention and disagreement," Lazar said. "I would like to see this matter put behind us."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.