The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is about to hit hundreds of Santa Fe city employees where it hurts the most: their wallets.
The city will impose furloughs of four hours a week on 868 employees and 16 hours a week on 180 others for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, under a highly contentious proposal that was approved by a split City Council late Wednesday night.
The furloughs on a vast majority of the city’s workforce are part of a larger cost-cutting effort by Mayor Alan Webber and his administration to close a $46 million budget deficit over the next two months amid a pandemic that has ravaged the economy and capsized the city’s once-optimistic revenue projections.
“If you’re feeling angry, frustrated, sad, mad or just plain fed up because this whole situation really sucks, I agree, it does suck,” Webber said at the beginning of the discussion. “And if you want someone or something to blame, blame COVID-19. COVID-19 is like a thief in the night that snuck into our home and stole our money, our sense of security, our nest egg for future investments and left us with a $46 million debt to pay.”
The furloughs are projected to save $1.43 million, or just 3 percent of the total budget gap the city needs to close. The city also plans to freeze nonessential spending, restrict overtime and implement other cost-cutting measures that will generate about $29.5 million in savings. Despite the belt-tightening, the city still faces a $16.5 million shortfall, which Mary McCoy, the city’s finance director, said would largely be filled using the city’s $14 million rainy day fund.
“This is the worst our government has experienced from a fiscal perspective,” McCoy said.
Though the savings from the furloughs are small, relatively speaking, the reduction in work hours drew harsh criticism from city employees who called them unfair, saying lower-paid workers would take the biggest hit. Some city councilors were also critical of the plan and how it was rolled out, saying they didn’t get the opportunity to provide input beforehand and that the Webber administration gave them no other options to consider.
The 5-4 vote came after a four-hour discussion and debate that grew more testy as the hours wore on.
“What I’ve learned from this is when you want to slam-dunk your plan, use up the clock so there’s no room for creative collaboration, only the plan of the victor,” City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said before casting a vote in opposition.
“It’s OK,” she added. “I’ve learned from this to leave the policymakers out of the real discussions. I’ve also learned that we’re going to keep the high earners high and the low earners low when it comes to losing money, and the lower-paid employees are the ones who do the work.”
Other city councilors who voted against the furloughs were Michael Garcia, Chris Rivera and Renee Villarreal.
Webber said the temporary furloughs are designed to keep workers employed and essential city services operating. Employees whose facilities are closed or perform job functions that have been reduced, such as parks and recreation workers, will be furloughed 16 hours a week.
“We’ve looked at a lot of plans — some were ours, some were offered by others,” Webber said. “Among a number of bad options designed to address a bad situation, this is the least bad plan.”
City Councilor Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez said the furloughs won’t be the last hard decision the governing body will be forced to make as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s the first,” she said, noting that the fiscal crisis will drag into the next fiscal year and possibly beyond.
Before and during the council meeting, city employees rallied in opposition to the furloughs outside City Hall from the safety of their vehicles. It appeared that only the mayor was participating in the virtual meeting from his office at City Hall, and the honking of horns could be heard in the background.
Employees’ vehicle windows were plastered with posters.
“If you want to see the true measure of an elected official, watch how they treat their rank & file, not their equals,” read one.
“We can do better!” read another. “We can’t ignore the inequalities that persist within our city. All we ask for is fairness from the top to the bottom.”