Carla Vigil is losing sleep at night.
It may not be the only thing she loses.
A parking enforcement officer with the city of Santa Fe, Vigil is bracing for a huge pay cut as Mayor Alan Webber and his administration try to figure out how to close an estimated $46 million budget gap in the fiscal year ending June 30 after a brutal economic shock wave from the novel coronavirus.
“I’m worried about my son’s future and what’s life going to be like during and after this pandemic,” said Vigil, a single mother who has been told to expect a furlough of 16 hours a week. “I’ve worked so long to have this stability to provide a better life for my son, Santiago, and now there’s an uncertainty that makes me sick to my stomach.”
The uncertainty extends to City Hall, which is proposing a series of cost-cutting measures to fill a deficit that is only a “guesstimate” at this point. Gross receipts tax revenue accounts for about 70 percent of the city’s general fund budget, which pays for day-to-day operations. But since disbursements from the state lag by two months, the city is, as one official put it privately, “flying this plane while we build it.”
The belt-tightening includes furloughs for everyone but front-line public safety employees. The furloughs, temporary for now, are projected to save $1.43 million, or just 3 percent of the gap the city needs to close over the next two months. Though the savings from the furloughs would be small, relatively speaking, the reduction in hours and how they would be divvied up among the workforce is turning out to be one of the bigger headaches for the mayor, who has enjoyed a fairly cushy relationship with city employees until now.
But that may be changing.
Union calls for more equity in cuts
“We’re not happy with the lies the mayor keeps putting in the paper,” said Gilbert Baca, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, the union that represents nearly 700 of the city’s estimated 1,332 employees.
Baca said he disputes the mayor’s assertion that “everyone is being asked to sacrifice.”
“We had a plan, and our plan was for management to take a bigger cut,” he said, adding high-level employees make much more money and could shoulder a bigger financial burden.
Under the mayor’s proposed furlough plan, each AFSCME member will be furloughed. But some employees will see a reduction of four hours a week while others, such as Vigil, will be furloughed for 16 hours. The imbalance is creating animosity not just toward the Webber administration but within the workforce because some employees will take a bigger hit than others.
In a statement late Friday, the city said employees whose workplaces are closed or whose functions have ceased amid the pandemic are facing the bigger furloughs.
“The mayor, city manager, and human resources team worked closely with unions and departments to identify positions that either cannot work because their facility is closed … or are unable to work at full capacity from home,” the city said. “We cannot spend money we don’t have on jobs that don’t currently exist.”
The union has been distributing a flyer that it says shows the financial disparity under the mayor’s plan. The flyer, widely shared on social media, compares the “top paid” city employee to the lowest. City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill is the highest-paid city employee with an annual salary of $170,000 a year. She would get a 10 percent pay cut with a four-hour-per-week furlough, which would bring her salary, if the furlough covered an entire year, to $153,000. Meanwhile, a city employee at the bottom of the pay scale who earns about $25,200 a year would take a 40 percent pay cut with a 16-hour-per-week furlough, bringing that salary to about $15,100.
“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself,” the flyer states.
At least two city councilors — Roman “Tiger” Abeyta and Carol Romero-Wirth — have volunteered to take the equivalent of a four-hour-per-week furlough from their biweekly paychecks. City councilors are paid about $39,100 a year.
“While I know this is not a large sum of money, I feel that it is important in my role as [chairman of the Finance Committee], that I have a biweekly reminder of what our city employees are going through,” Abeyta wrote in a letter to the editor.
Webber, who is paid about $110,000 a year, said he’s imposing a 30 percent pay cut on himself.
Baca described the mayor’s decision to forgo part of his salary as a publicity stunt.
“He’s a wealthy man,” he said. “He should’ve given up his whole salary during this whole crisis.”
Inflicting the least amount of pain?
During one of his daily Facebook webcasts last week, Webber said the city tried to develop a plan “to protect all of our workers.”
“Rather than laying people off, we’ve approached this with a proposal for furloughs,” he said.
The proposed furloughs preserve jobs, the mayor said.
The decision to hand out four-hour furloughs versus 16 hours was “based entirely on workload, on whether their buildings or functions have been closed down,” said Webber, who cited parking enforcement officers as an example.
“We’ve bagged all of our parking meters. We don’t want people having to pay parking when they come downtown or to the Railyard,” he said. “So we’re no longer issuing parking tickets, but we have people on payroll who we’re paying for our parking meter team. They did nothing wrong. They are not bad employees. They are great employees. But their function has been effectively eliminated because of the coronavirus, so we’ve had to go to a temporary furlough to get our budget in place.”
Baca acknowledged some employees’ jobs are essentially rendered useless amid the shutdown. But he said the city could offer those employees work in other vacant positions, such as streets or parks and recreation, giving at least a portion of those facing the biggest furloughs the opportunity to make up their lost hours.
“I recommended that to the mayor and his team, but they never gave me an answer,” he said. “Some are going to say, ‘No. I’d rather be home.’ … But some of them have already expressed to me, ‘I’ll go work here, and I’ll go work there.’ And it doesn’t take much to be a helper. You learn as you go. We all started there.”
In its Friday statement, the city said employees who work at a facility that has been closed “may be transitioned to perform other job duties” within city government.
“All of our economic analysis tells us there will very likely be more sacrifice required from all of us going forward,” the city said.
But Baca said decisions by the administration lack creativity. For example, he said, parks and recreation employees could take some services, such as yoga classes, outside while still following social-distancing rules. He also criticized the city for bagging the parking meters.
“Parking could still be bringing in revenue,” he said.
Other cost-cutting measures, which the City Council will consider Wednesday, include a hiring freeze on nonessential personnel and a spending freeze that will generate about $25 million in savings. The city also let 41 temporary workers go.
If approved by the council, the furloughs would go into effect May 6.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said she believes furloughs are necessary, but she’s not in favor of requiring the lowest-paid employees to take the “brunt” of the highest cuts.
“That is unconscionable,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer that cost savings would accrue faster from employees with higher hourly salaries.”
At last week’s Finance Committee meeting, Abeyta, the chairman, said he didn’t think the proposed furloughs “went far enough.”
Vigil Coppler said it’s the lowest-paid employees who deliver a majority of the necessary services to residents.
“These decisions were made and given to employees without a plan communicated to the City Council, even after asking for the plan many times,” she said. “The City Council has policymaking authority, but it seems often ignored.”
The city said swift action is required and that any delays could make the situation worse.
“If the governing body does not approve the plan [Wednesday], then a new plan will need to be [publicly] noticed and approved,” the city said. “In order to provide the savings anticipated in the current plan, a new plan would require deeper cuts in a shorter period of time.”
On his webcast last week, Webber said the cost-cutting plan developed by his administration likely will require more sacrifice. While the city hopes to seek federal aid and likely will tap into at least a portion of its $16 million rainy day fund, the plan identifies only about $29.6 million in savings, which still leaves a projected $16.4 million gap.
“We are required to make some hard decisions, to face the brutal facts of life, and these furloughs — temporary though they are — will begin the process of getting us toward a balanced budget,” Webber said.
“Now I want to be absolutely clear: These furloughs are necessary [but] they’re not sufficient,” Webber added. “They are not going to get the job done. But we decided as a strategy not to take one huge cut that would inflict a huge amount of pain but rather to take small incremental steps to get us to the … $46 million savings.”
A longtime city employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said in a statement the furloughs will cause a “huge hardship” on her family.
“As I sit here writing this, I am literally in tears trying to figure how I am going to explain to my kids what struggles we will face these next few months,” the employee wrote. “As a parent, nobody ever wants to have a conversation like this with their children. We want to protect and provide to our children as much as we can.”
The employee, who is a single parent, questioned the fairness of the furloughs.
“Why are some given the max of 16 hours a week and others in HR and Finance given the minimum of four hours?” she asked.
When the city last implemented furloughs in 2018, the employee said the entire workforce was given the same amount.
“At one point, we were all part of a shared community working for the city, and now we aren’t and won’t ever be in my personal opinion,” the employee wrote. “The ending question is: Why couldn’t the burden of the furloughs been shared equally across the board, like a family is supposed to do.”
The proposed furloughs come as the City Council also considers raising copays or deductibles in employees’ health insurance plans.
In the throes of a financial crisis
City officials have said the pandemic is unprecedented, requiring actions unlike any before.
In a presentation to the city Finance Committee last week, Finance Director Mary McCoy provided the number of unemployment claims in New Mexico from the first week of March to the second week of April.
Statewide, unemployment claims for the week ending March 7 totaled 659, including 39 in Santa Fe County. For the week ending March 28, the number had jumped to nearly 28,000 claims across New Mexico. Santa Fe County accounted for about 10 percent of the claims.
“The statewide weekly high during the last recession was just over 3,000 initial claims a week for the entire state,” McCoy told the committee. “So we can see how unprecedented the current crisis is that we are in and how severely this is impacting our community.”
In a statement, the city said its finances are in “deep trouble” and that it will take “sacrifice from all of us to pull our city out” of the economic crisis.
“To be clear: We are still in the throes of a deep and sustained financial crisis. Many companies and organizations in our community have gone straight to layoffs as a way of balancing their budgets,” the city said. “We have chosen to take a slow implementation of job actions that will spread the sacrifice across the greatest number of people and preserve the most jobs possible. This is the meaning of ‘in this together.’ ”