Mandatory furloughs a good start to solving deficit

Yes, it will be easier said than done. But The City could save $26.5 million and cancel up to 8 percent of its upcoming $300 million-plus deficit by simply requiring the 12,562 municipal employees paid from the operating budget to take four unpaid days off sometime during the next fiscal year.

Furloughs would be the most direct, and probably the most acceptable, way for Mayor Gavin Newsom to persuade the labor unions representing San Francisco’s police, fire, gardening, street-cleaning and health care employees to accept his April request for contract renegotiations to cut costs by 3 percent. The current labor contracts ban mandatory furloughs.

When a massive public deficit must be balanced, there are only hard choices from among unpleasant cuts. But if the labor contracts cannot be successfully renegotiated, the probable alternative would be layoffs numbering in “the thousands, not the hundreds,” according to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who requested the city Controller’s Office analyze potential furlough savings.

The controller’s memo showed three possible levels of saving. If public-safety employees were excluded because of voter-mandated staffing minimums in the police and fire departments, savings would be nearly halved to $14.2 million instead of the $26.5 million for furloughing all general-fund employees.

On the other hand, a whopping $44.3 million in savings would be gained if mandatory four-day furloughs covered all city and county employees — particularly workers in enterprise departments such as the airport and the Port of San Francisco — which generate their own revenues separately from the general fund.

Mandatory furloughs were fairly common among the Peninsula’s smaller cities after the dot-com meltdown a few years ago. Typically, an entire department would shut down for the work week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. A holiday-week furlough was also Elsbernd’s earlier suggestion.

However, the Controller’s Office pointed out The City’s cost savings from mandatory furloughs would be “maximized and service disruption minimized” if each department could select which days of the year would be unpaid. Elsbernd concurred with this recommendation and said such flexibility would enable City Hall to negotiate more furlough days than four — possibly as many as 10.

According to the Mayor’s Office, the key unions have agreed to come in and discuss the mayor’s request, but no union actually agreed on concessions yet. The Examiner hopes and expects mandatory-furlough deals to be reached in time to help balance the fiscal 2008-09 budget, because ultimately the unions will not want any of their members laid off.

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