Saturday, July 12, 2014

(Butte County) Big mouths

On the grand jury report and a union chief’s rhetoric

July 10, 2014
Chico News & Review
By Melissa Daugherty
I don’t know of a single person who was surprised when the Butte County Grand Jury released its recent investigation into the city of Chico’s budget crisis. Like me, they’d probably heard a rumor that probe was in the works.
Over the course of the last six or eight months, several people informed me that city finances were once again on the docket. Evidently the members of the 2013-14 panel thought they would dig up a lot more dirt than the previous empanelled jurors, who conducted a similar study last year.
I thought the topics of a grand jury’s inquiries were supposed to be confidential, but evidently some people couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Every time I heard about the investigation, it came during discussion about the potential “fraud” that some unnamed former city employees perpetrated. “What fraud?” I’d ask. The response: “We’ll see what the grand jury finds.”
As we now know, and as the CN&R has long been saying, “fraud” wasn’t a factor. The grand jury found no evidence of such activities occurring, just poor decisions from top management and the City Council following the worst recession since the Great Depression. Nobody expected the economic downturn to be as steep or as long-lasting as it’s been, and nobody expected the state to dismantle redevelopment agencies. So, sufficient action to truly staunch the flow of money came too late.
In hindsight, what should have been done early? Well, for starters, the city should have been tougher while negotiating salaries and benefits—the general fund’s largest obligation at more than 80 percent of the entire pot. As the grand jury noted, however, “While general fund revenues were declining, the average citywide salary was on the rise. Chico City budgets show that from 2006 through 2012, most upper management positions received substantial increases in salary.”
That probably accounts for the lack of aggressive contract negotiations; it’s hard for administrators to call for cuts when they are getting raises.
I think the good news out of all of this is that the public—you know, the folks who pay city employees’ wages—are more informed about municipal finances than ever before. We’re seeing evidence of that in the comments we hear at City Council meetings and also in the pages of this newspaper.
Nobody knows that better than Peter Durfee, president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association, who’s taken to task this week in our Letters section (see page 6). Speaking of big mouths, as the union’s chief, Durfee’s made it a habit of ramping up the rhetoric about how the Chico Police Department is so vastly understaffed and how officers are underpaid. Of course, he fails to mention how the benefits packages he and his colleagues receive are nearly double the state average for municipal workers. In other words, he works for one of the highest-paying cities in the state.
Durfee’s shouting into the wind these days. The public knows the score. Now it’s up to the new city management to take note and to negotiate contracts that don’t overburden the coffers.

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