Because of an expected loss of about $680,000 in sales tax revenue due to the economic shutdown, members of the Ceres City Council on Monday decided to hold off on filling 13 vacant city positions.
However, the council agreed with Police Chief Rick Collins there is a pressing need to fill a public safety dispatcher position left vacant by an employer who has left. Collins said it takes six to nine months to get a dispatcher fully trained.
The council did not rule out filling the positions later pending the fallout of how the budget will be affected by sales taxes and businesses forced to close under the COVID-19 lockdown. They made it clear that they didn’t want to be in a position to issue layoff notices to make up for budget shortfalls.
The vacant positions include two firefighters, deputy finance director, human resources analyst, custodian, code enforcement secretary, water resource analyst, fleet mechanic, wastewater treatment plant operator, and two parks maintenance workers.
Public Works Director Jeremy Damas said the city as been without water resources analyst for two months now and can continue to do without it for a time. Both Damas and new City Manager Tom Westbrook said the wastewater treatment plant operator is needed.
The city expects the same property tax revenue but about a 10 percent decrease in sales tax. In addition, Finance Director Leticia Dias said some are late with paying their utility bills and encourages customers to “pay what they can.” Mayor Chris Vierra said the city has no intention of waiving sewer, water and garbage fees during the economic shutdown.
Westbrook suggested the pursuing the hiring of lifeguard staff in case the summer aquatics program goes on if the state lifts its shelter-in-place order but said “nobody knows when that will be.” Swim lessons normally start in June and end in July.
Vice Mayor Linda Ryno wanted to hold off on filling positions for fear that layoff would have to be issued if the city cannot find the money. Councilman Channce Condit agreed.
"I want to see the money we have before we start spending money," said Ryno. She also recommended holding off on capital improvement projects not funded by Measure L tax revenue.
Vierra said the city had three critical jobs that needed to be filled but was willing to go along with proceeding with only hiring a dispatcher. Councilmen Mike Kline and Bret Durossette also wanted a dispatcher hired, citing the city’s need especially since Ceres now provides dispatching services for the city of Newman.
Westbrook said that all discretionary spending now must be approved by him or the Finance Director unless it’s considered critical spending.
Vierra also argued there is a need to offer swim lessons, saying a child could die in a pool or canal without the benefit of a city-sponsored swim lesson.
“My feeling is that we move forward with proper guidance in the direction,” said Vierra.
At the end of the discussion, Vierra, Durossette and Kline agreed that the dispatcher position needed to be filled while holding off on the rest.
Vierra said the positions aren't being cut for now.
Bonus idea nixed
In other action, Vice Mayor Ryno backed away from her initial idea of offering cash rewards to city workers who work during the COVID-19 shutdown, and suggested giving paid vacation hours in their bank. Westbrook said a 5 percent bonus would equate to 20 hours, or three days off.
Westbrook studied her initial idea of giving employees $500 each which would equate to $120,000. The $1,000 would have been double and a five percent bonus would be about $31,000 per month.
Ryno said her intent was to recognize “those who were showing up to work and potentially taking something home to their families.” But she retreated, saying "we have to look at what's coming down the pike as far as what's going to happen to our general fund when we start getting these hits."
Vierra said vacation days would also cost the general fund and argued against the action.
“I think we have great employees. I appreciate all of their hard and dedication … but for me personally it would be difficult for me to support this for a number of reasons.”
Vierra said some employees do not interact with the public and that $120,000 is the cost of an officer or a firefighter. He also said the city shouldn’t be giving bonuses because many in Ceres are "hurting" and out of work.
Durossette said he liked the idea of rewarding employees but said hosting a barbecue to honor them would be just as well.
Condit said Ryno was well intentioned and he values employees but echoed the mayor’s sentiments.
Westbrook said the city has eliminated some part-time workers but most employees who are left are considered essential employees.
"We need to just be cautious of government serving itself and we need to consider the public in general," said Condit. He said he would prefer see any spending put toward small businesses.