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May 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

No-win situation for city employees No-win situation for city employees (May 13, 2005)

Proposed layoffs leave some with the choice to exit, or 'bump' a co-worker

by Bill D'Agostino

Palo Alto Park Ranger Erin Bennett described it as the toughest decision of her life.

Should she accept the proposed layoff of her job or "bump" another ranger out of his or hers? She eventually decided that for the sake of her family, she needed to remain employed.

"If I had any other viable option, I would not gone this route," she said earlier this week.

When City Manager Frank Benest proposed laying off 18 city employees earlier this month, unionized workers with seniority had the option to bump other city employees, assuming they were qualified for the new job.

That issue produced similar dilemmas across the city. Employees were forced to consider numerous factors, such as whether they could accept a lesser-paying job or could pass the pain to another employee they probably knew.

On Tuesday night, the Finance Committee seemingly made Bennett's wrenching decision moot. They voted unanimously to recommend not eliminating her half-time position, which costs the city $40,903, including salary and benefits.

The committee did not want to lose the outdoor programs -- including star parties, campfires and nature hikes -- that would have halted if the position was cut from the budget. (The full City Council will review the committee's recommendations at a meting in June when it approves the budget.)

The ranger argued that cutting the position would also endanger people's safety, by having fewer rangers able to respond to emergencies. "We're already stretched too thin," she said.

In past years, the city manager argued he was using attrition, not layoffs, to cut positions and balance the budget partially because of the disorder associated with bumping.

This year, the city is facing a projected $5.2 million deficit, and Benest has said layoffs were inevitable because there were not enough expected retirements and potential vacancies to close the shortfall. He acknowledged that the issue was causing organizational disruption and uncertainty.

"That's just a fact of working in a highly unionized environment, so we will work with it," he said.

On Monday night, the City Council heard from Code Enforcement Officer Chris Fujimoto, who was on the other end of the spectrum from Bennet -- another fellow employee with greater seniority bumped him.

While telling the council that he believed the loss of his job would slow the speed the city could respond to code enforcement complaints, Fujimoto became emotional and paused mid-sentence to hold back tears.

"I care about this community and I care about this program," he said when he resumed.

On Tuesday night, the Finance Committee tentatively approved the proposed Planning Department budget, including Fujimoto's layoff.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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