State - INACTIVE

Hughson feels effects of small town struggles

HUGHSON — Drastic cuts like those made here this week are only the beginning.

After several years of trying to fill gaps and make do in a weak economy, governments at all levels in California will look at overhauling the way they do business, with more layoffs and reductions in services unavoidable.

"These are the same kind of cuts the county will be having," Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who represents Hughson, said of the city's decision to cut 22 percent of its staff. "It's going to be drastic."

Cities face the double sting of continued economic struggles and Gov. Jerry Brown's threat to do away with redevelopment agencies, which bring in tax money for improvement projects and the like.

"This has been catastrophic for cities," said Eva Spiegel, communications director for the League of California Cities.

Hughson's most recent cuts took effect Tuesday, with the five employees laid off Monday night placed on administrative leave until March 1, when their jobs will be eliminated.

City Manager Bryan Whitemyer said the decision was difficult but will help ensure Hughson's successful future.

"We're doing this so we don't become a Chowchilla," he said, referring to the Madera County city of 19,000 with so much money trouble it's in danger of disincorporating. No California city has made such a drastic move since 1972; most cities that have dissolved through history are ghost towns of a few hundred people.

Whitemyer said the losses — of the code enforcement officer, building inspector, parks and recreation director, office assistant and housing analyst — will affect how the city does businesses.

"We'll definitely be more reactionary than proactive," he said.

He pointed out that the city's code enforcement officer could patrol neighborhoods, looking for problem spots such as overgrown weeds or misplaced signs. The city will still handle code violations but likely will operate on a complaint basis.

The losses are obviously most devastating to the people who held those positions. Office assistant Tina Robinson said she and the others arrived at work the morning after the decision to be told to clean out their desks and go home.

Robinson, who has an 8-year-daughter and a disabled husband and is expecting a baby boy in May, spent the day lining up insurance and starting her job hunt.

"I'll take anything," she said. "I need a job."

Hughson is a unique situation — in addition to the poor economy that's plagued government at all levels, Stanislaus County's smallest city has been rocked by upheaval that included a City Council recall election, the arrest of its public works director and turnover among most of its administrators.

Whitemyer, who took over about two months ago, and Interim Finance Director Margaret Souza have been poring over the city's books, finding accounting mistakes and overcharges that must be fixed. For instance, the City Council voted Monday night to pay back $52,000 to property owners in two subdivisions who paid taxes they didn't owe for the past two years.

"Why were the assessments not stopped?" Councilman Matt Beekman asked.

"In 2009, the person responsible for the assessments quit coming to work," said Director of Building and Planning Thom Clark. He referred to Public Works Director David Chase, who faces felony charges of hacking into the city's computer system and deleting files.

Nonetheless, the hard decisions Hughson faces will echo throughout the area.

Whitemyer said cities will look at new ways of doing business. For instance, Hughson might share police chief duties with another city that also contracts with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement.

"Up to this point, we have not paid the salary of police chief, but our contract is up in September and essentially the county will want to talk about those bullet points," Whitemyer said. In Patterson, another contract city where Whitemyer formerly worked, the county and city agreed to phase in the city's responsibility to pay for its police chief.

"Hopefully they'd be willing to consider that," Whitemyer said. "We're also looking at other options, related to sharing a chief with Waterford."

Waterford City Administrator Chuck Deschenes said that's a possibility.

Outside of the chief, the city's law enforcement costs will rise an estimated $125,000 in the next fiscal year, due mainly to increased workers compensation and pension costs.

Cities everywhere are looking with a wary eye at continued cost increases, with revenues flat at best.

Deschenes, who runs a city with a staff equivalent to 12.5 full-time employees — unlike Hughson, the city doesn't operate its own water system — said smaller communities feel hits first and worst.

He is working on his own midyear budget report and expects the news to be grim but manageable.

Waterford doesn't have a parks and recreation department, and contracts for services such as building inspection and planning. That way, Deschenes said, the city only pays for the work that is done.

"We've been doing business on a shoestring for quite some time," he said. "It's going to take a nip and a tuck, but I think we'll be OK."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343. Follow her at www.twitter.com/turlocknow.

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