No decision yet on furloughs

Published 10:11 am Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Austin City Council has yet to decide whether or not it will implement five-day furloughs for all city employees in 2010.

One of 100 line items on a list of budget reductions and revenue options, furloughs were on the agenda for discussion at the council’s work session Monday night, the last day of discussion before they are scheduled to vote on their recommendations April 6.

Proposed are five unpaid days in 2010 that each city employee must take off, “whether you are the city administrator at the top or the janitor at the bottom of the list,” said Tom Dankert, director of administrative services.

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The furloughs would reduce the 2010 budget by $110,000. They have been a common option for budget reductions throughout the state, with Olmsted County implementing them and Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposing 24-day furloughs for state employees.

The council and Mayor Tom Stiehm said they are seeking other “creative” options to cut funding.

“We’re not going to jam this down anybody’s throat,” Stiehm said.

Three city employees voiced their opposition to the furloughs during the meeting.

“I feel like I’m a representative right now of the employees, not just my personal view,” said Jeanne Howatt, administrative assistant and 11-year employee. She said she believes if staff had been notified of the meeting, more would have attended.

“I think this issue is more than money,” Howatt said, adding that $110,000 is “not much compared to everything.”

“The employee morale right now is way down,” she said.

In recent years, the number of city employees has been reduced from 185 to 141.

“We are stressed people who are added more to our services,” Howatt said. “We’re doing more and more and more, with less and less and less.

“We are the City of Austin, and we don’t need to be hurt one more time,” she said.

Ron Ripley, who has worked in the building department for 12 years, said he has a hard time seeing the Spamtown Belle boat and flower program recommended for some funding, while city staff may be affected.

“Let’s get down to bare bones before we ask our employees to take cuts,” Ripley said.

Council member Janet Anderson said recommendations like funding the Spamtown Belle are only recommendations; they are not official yet.

“I can certainly understand the frustration there,” Anderson said.

Twenty-year street department veteran Mike Pratt, who has been involved with past negotiations, said the cuts are “never given back.”

“It’s always take, take, take,” Pratt said. “It’s not really negotiations any more. It’s always one more day, and one more employee. The constant hit we get … it’s hard.”

Council member Jeff Austin defended the council’s actions.

“We’re taking a hit from the state,” Austin said. “We have gone line item by line item … unfortunately, with the city, 65 percent or more of our budget is personnel.

“We’re trying to save people’s jobs as much as we can,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”

Council member Brian McAlister said the council needs to start making the hard decisions now.

“The easy way to do this for the council is to do nothing until 2010,” he said. Firing people is “not some place I want to go.”

Council member John Martin agreed.

“We got to make the hard choices, now,” Martin said. “(A) 1.2 million cut is a reality for 2010. In my reality, it’s probably $2 million. If we don’t have to cut — fantastic.”

“For every dollar we don’t accept in our proposal, we’re going to have to make up for some how,” city administrator Jim Hurm said.

Dankert said he has been receiving questions and suggestions from employees about the proposed furloughs. One asked if it would be possible to take the spring or fall off for farming; another asked if a co-worker couldn’t afford to take a week off, could they take two; and another asked about exchanging it for sick leave.

Austin suggested asking employees to volunteer taking time off this year to ease the hit the city will take in 2010.

Stiehm reiterated to the audience that the furloughs are currently still a proposal, and the city is open to suggestions.

The council voted to meet with city employees to discuss ideas. No action was taken.