Cash-Short Lindsay Council Under Fire

A crowd of angry city employees and citizens filled the chambers of the Lindsay City Council to overflowing on August 25, as workers came to air their upset over a hastily enacted furlough program and the city’s residents reacted with dismay to the possibility of paying more for city services.

Facing a cash-flow crisis following the departure of its former city manager, Rich Wilkinson, as well as lawsuits by a former police officer and a group suing for alleged failure to maintain ADA access, City Hall gave workers notice of the cost-saving furloughs on August 14, only three days before the two-day work-stoppages began on August 17.

Meanwhile, with funds for sewer, water and refuse dwindling, the council is facing a backlash for rate increases it says it must have.

Employees Blame Council

Fernando Saenz, a 15-year veteran of the Lindsay City Services Department, blamed the furloughs on the council’s failure to act, saying he believed they had been aware of the cash-crunch coming, but had done nothing to prevent it.

“I hold every one of you council members responsible for this furlough that’s led to a 10% pay cut,” he said. “I also hold the city management responsible.”

Workers Left to Wonder

Saenz said he had received a letter from the city explaining why the furlough was needed, but not how large the gap was or how long the furloughs would last.

“There’s no cash value on it,” he said of the letter. “How much money are we talking about? We’re not a bank you can come to and take some money to pay the city’s bills. You say you’re going to save $12,000 in every pay period. It comes out to $294,000 in a year. Again, we’re not a bank that you just go to say I’ve got a problem, the city needs some money, and so you’re going to take it from us.”

Union Involved

The move prompted workers to file a letter of grievance with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which represents some of the city’s employees.

“We’ve made it clear (to City Hall) the SEIU does not agree with the furloughs, has asked that they be ceased and desisted,” said Jose Segal, internal organizer for SEIU. “So we’re working on avenues in regards to that process.”

Beyond discussions with management, Segal did not say what measures the union might employ. He did, however, emphasize the shock workers felt at receiving short notice of the furlough. He was also critical of the city’s handling of the matter.

“It’s very difficult for a lot of employees to be notified at 4 o’clock on a Friday that the next week they’re going to get home furlough,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the best way to deal with it.”

City Looking for Revenue

With insufficient money coming in and cash reserves running out, the City Council began contemplating raising the rates it charges for sewer, water and refuse service in March. The August 25 hearing before the Council’s final decision drew angry complaints from the public for nearly an hour.

The rate increase is needed, said Interim City Manager Bill Zigler, to fund maintenance and cover increased operating costs.

“We’ve done a good job of reducing the amount of salaries that are connected to it dollar-wise. What we’re finding is just the plan is failing,” he said, adding the city’s water treatment facility hasn’t been upgraded in decades. “It’s 20 years old. Stuff is failing. Costs have gone up. And, this stuff has to be self-funding. We don’t get to ask someone else to pay for this.”

Complaints from those who would pay the rate increases focused mainly on the impact the extra expense would have on the city’s large low-income population. The city received 393 written protests against the rate increases. Under the rules laid out under Prop. 218, 1,290 written protests would have to have been lodged to prevent the council from considering increased rates.

The council voted 3-2 to approve the increases. Dissenting were Mayor Pro-Tem Rosaena Sanchez and Councilman Steve Mecum. The largest change will be in sewer rates, which will rise $6.86 a month to $36.88. Refuse customers will see rates rise by $1.14 to $22.73. Commercial recycling will go up $1.56 to $31.71. The changes will not go into effect until the end of the year.

Unexpected Expenses

One source of the city’s financial embarrassment became clear when it was reported the city will settle a wrongful dismissal suit with former police officer Bryan Clower.

“The parties have agreed to settle the case instead of going to trial,” said Mario Zamora, Lindsay city attorney. “The terms are that the city will pay the plaintiff $90,000 between now and Dec. 15.”

Clower claimed in a deposition three members of the Council, Mayor Ramona Villarreal-Padilla, Mayor Pro-Tem Rosaena Sanchez and Councilman Steve Mecum, had encouraged him to file his suit in an effort to discredit Wilkinson, who was then city manager. Wilkinson has since left his position, and the city has agreed to pay him more than $240,000 in compensation over the next two years.

Water Restrictions Approved

Also on August 25, the Council unanimously approved adding two phases to its water conservation program. The newly adopted law means residents will now be limited to two watering days per week during limited hours of those days. The limits also apply to washing cars and refilling pools. Those days could be eliminated if the city is forced into even harsher measures by the continuing drought.

Those who violate the new restrictions face fines of up to $250.

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