It’s hard to imagine a worse message to voters than the one sent by Crescent City Council members Monday night.
Facing a big General Fund deficit for the current fiscal year and the threat of a sewer fee rollback initiative on the fall ballot that would force drastic budget cuts, the Council voted to establish a bonus plan for the city’s highest-paid employees.
In normal economic times, this wouldn’t be a bad idea. Merit pay based on performance is preferable to automatic raises for department heads, and a similar procedure is already in place for some other city employees.
But these aren’t normal economic times, and the only Council member who was talking sense Monday night was Donna Westfall, who pointed out, “I think the employees need to be thankful they have a job.”
Westfall, who has made one bad move after another since getting elected in 2008, who has failed in her unjustified attempts to have her colleagues thrown out of office but succeeded in getting the equally unjustified sewer fee rollback initiative on the ballot, was absolutely right this time.
How can City Council members claim to be financially responsible when they approve an employee bonus plan in the face of a budget deficit? How could they give themselves the 40 percent Council pay raise that took effect last year?
The short answer is that this City Council is politically tone-deaf. And that’s a dangerous trait with the potentially devastating sewer fee rollback initiative looming.
At a cost of up to $28,000 a year, the department head bonus plan is not a big-ticket item. Neither was the Council pay raise, even though the percentage increase was eye-popping. It increased Council members’ monthly stipends from $434 to $610.
The Council’s recent decisions to enlarge the Police Department by creating a new lieutenant position, at a cost of $110,000 in salary and benefits, and spend $152,000 on new safety equipment for firefighters may be politically defensible. And the city’s $100,000 contribution for the current fiscal year to the Visitors Bureau is a no-brainer — in an increasingly tourist-dependent community, this is the municipal equivalent of tithing.
But it’s impossible to escape the overall impression that the Council is willing to keep digging into reserves for more deficit-spending without a strategy to eventually balance the books — unless one considers hoping for an economic turnaround to be a strategy.
The additional police and fire expenditures could have been delayed until the new fiscal year beginning July 1. Pay raises for departments heads and Council members should not have happened at all in the current economic climate.
The city estimates that its General Fund would lose up to $2.6 million annually if voters approve Westfall’s initiative to roll back rate increases that are paying for an almost-completed sewage treatment plant expansion.
Crescent City voters may not be naturally inclined to eviscerate their local public services in that manner, but the City Council needs to quit tempting them with dubious spending decisions.