Holiday week furlough sensible

As the San Francisco Board of Supervisors began casting about for expenditures to cut for balancing the upcoming 2008-09 deficit — which has now ballooned to an estimated $338 million — one of the less attention-grabbing proposals makes sense to us.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd asked for a staff analysis of how much money The City could save by assigning all “nonessential” city employees an unpaid one-week furlough between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Even though the potential savings are unlikely to make a spectacular reduction in the deficit burden, we expect the accountants to recommend that a one-week furlough is worth enacting in a severe budget crunch. An unpaid Christmastime week off became fairly common among smaller Peninsula cities following the dot-com bust and the post-Sept. 11 travel slowdown.

The City Hall furloughs helped San Mateo County towns weather the worst of the slump until local and state revenues rebounded. In the private sector, especially for smaller businesses, it is also common practice to close down the entire shop for all-employee vacations during the slow season.

The “unpaid” furlough can be structured so that it does not even cost most employees any lost income. They are simply required to take some annual vacation at a time financially helpful toa struggling employer. Any workers on staff for six months or a year have presumably earned a week of paid vacation that they could use during the holiday furlough.

The Examiner supports a Christmas week shutdown of nonessential services at San Francisco City Hall and the outlying departments. Of course, such furloughs should not be imposed on civil service employees except at times of dire financial need. But this strategy is considerably less painful than the alternatives.

A short-term salary reduction spread across the larger work force should cause less turmoil than a smaller number of permanent layoffs that reduce the level of services available to the public. And with police and firefighter personnel exempt from such furloughs, The City would experience no loss of public safety.

Make no mistake about it, San Francisco must produce many more ideas for large and small cost cuts to get through the serious deficit crisis just ahead. The City will have nearly $160 million less revenue for the 2008-09 budget than was predicted just five months ago. The latest City Hall accounting report says only $7.6 million will be left over at the end of this year to help balance the next budget.

However, there is one other point we like about Elsbernd’s proposal: His roster of nonessential employees eligible for unpaid furlough would include the members of the Board of Supervisors. And we welcome Mayor Gavin Newsom’s directive Wednesday calling for voluntary Thanksgivingand Christmas-New Year’s holiday week furloughs for city employees as a step in the right direction.

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