Barstow Goes First With Mutual Sacrifices To Save The Jobs Of All

In the first of what inevitably will prove to be a series of similar economies necessitated by the financial devastation following in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barstow’s top ranking municipal employees have voluntarily imposed on themselves fiscal austerity measures intended to tide the city’s ship of state through a treacherous undertow-and-whirlpool-laden sea of red ink that is directly ahead.
Barstow City Manager Nikki Salas, Barstow Assistant City Manager Cindy Prothro and Barstow Police Chief Albert Ramirez Jr., together with the members of the Barstow Management Employees’ Association, consented to forego any raises for two years along with the withholding of vacation, holiday and management leave payouts retroactive to July 1 and running until June 30, 2022. During that same two-year span the city’s executive level staff have further agreed not to accept any performance bonuses conferred upon them, nor see their paychecks fattened by a cost of living increase. The city’s contributions into the management employees’ deferred compensation accounts are to be discontinued until June 26, 2022.
Under the terms of the voluntary program ratified by the city council on July 20, the money withheld from the management employees over that 24-month benefit suspension period will be paid to them on July 1, 2022 or shortly thereafter, well after, it is anticipated, the pandemic will have passed and economic recovery has been initiated.
Salas and Barstow Human Resources Manager Darcy Wigington have advanced with negotiations pertaining to similar temporary concessions on pay and benefit levels with the collective bargaining units for the city’s other employee groups, but those talks have not yet reached a conclusion, the Sentinel was informed.
The suspension of normal business activity which occurred between March 18 and the beginning of June, including the shuttering of restaurants and a whole host of shops wherein there is close interaction or contact between customers and employees or customers and customers, curtailed drastically the sales tax income Barstow, which stands at the crossroads of Interstate 15, Interstate 40 and California State Route 58, had been receiving. Earlier this month, those suspended precautions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 were reinstituted, entailing the prospect that the ongoing economic collapse will perpetuate, most likely until the advent of a vaccine to stem the advance of the disease.
The business shutdowns have clouded the city’s financial picture substantially. Last month, Barstow moved to a two-year budgetary cycle, a major break from tradition and protocol not just in Barstow but in virtually every other municipality in the state, where cities, towns, counties, agencies, districts and governmental entities of all stripe normally function on a one-year fiscal cycle that runs from July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next.
The move to a two-year budgeting cycle will allow for the incremental reduction of ongoing expenses which now stand at a level more in keeping with those in past budgets when a correspondingly greater amount of revenue was pouring into city coffers. These gradual expenditure reductions are intended to allow the city’s shortfalls to be sustained and the bills in excess of revenue to be defrayed beyond 12-months, at which time it is hoped the city’s previous revenue levels will again be achieved.
Barstow’s action immediately garnered the attention of other cities and incorporated towns in San Bernardino and beyond, as it represents a model that might conceivably avoid massive layoffs of city personnel. That the city’s management class was not only willing to sustain the pay reductions but take the lead in accepting them, in so doing perhaps inspiring the city’s line employees to do the same, was seen as significant.
Barstow, which is ranked variously as the county’s 19th largest or sixth smallest municipality, was not the first San Bernardino County city to be forced into an accommodation with financial reality in the aftermath of the COVID-19 financial disaster.
In Redlands and Grand Terrace in May, those cities’ operations made dramatic adjustment.
At the Wednesday May 6 Grand Terrace City Council meeting, City Manager Howard Duffy and Assistant City Manager Cynthia Fortune previewed the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget for the diminutive city, the county’s third smallest in terms of population at just under 13,000. Together with the imposition of an immediate adjustment for what was then the last quarter of Fiscal Year 2019-20, Duffy and Fortune slashed by half the city’s already bare bones staff for Fiscal Year 2020-21 from 12 current employees to six.
The same week, Redlands, which qualifies as the the county’s 11th largest city with its roughly 72,000 population, announced the elimination of 38 full‐time positions and 42 part‐time positions. City Manager Charles Duggan noted that at that time, of the 38 full-time assignments to be eliminated, 21 were filled. Duggan indicated that of the 42 part-time posts the city was shedding, 31 were currently occupied. Thus, he stated “21 full-time and 31 part-time” city employees were to be given pink slips as of the fiscal year beginning this month.
Of the county’s 24 cities and towns, only Ontario, which stands as the wealthiest of municipalities in the county with well over half of a billion dollars channeling through its various funds and departments annually, is likely to withstand the coronavirus pandemic’s financial fallout unscathed.
Whether the remainder of San Bernardino County’s cities will follow the Barstow model, where mutual sacrifice among top tier to lowest tier employees is taking place to avoid staff firings, or whether they will go the way in which Grand Terrace and Redlands met the challenge, which involved those cities’ highest ranking and most powerful employees keeping their comfortable rate of pay at the expense of the sackings of those cities’ lesser established and more vulnerable employees, remains to be seen.
-Mark Gutglueck

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