Budget Cuts Take Their Toll on Essential City Services
Business + Economy

Budget Cuts Take Their Toll on Essential City Services

For firefighter Mark Kovach, the reality of municipal budget cuts hit home when he was tumbling down the staircase of a burning building in Flint, Mich., after failing to rescue a man trapped on the second floor.

After cutbacks last year, Kovach's crew had only a small vehicle with basic equipment to respond to fires, not the usual ladder and pumping trucks. Absent water to beat back the flames, the blaze at a single-family home in late April of last year turned into an inferno that left Kovach with severe burns.

A pumping truck from another station arrived about five minutes after Kovach’s team. When firefighters reached 47-year-old Adan Recendiz-Trejo, he was dead. Kovach cannot say for sure the man would have survived, but he is certain of one thing. "If we had had a hose line in the first line of attack, we would have been able to get to him then," Kovach said.

Events are not always so dramatic as that night in Flint, but the most searing economic downturn since the Great Depression is relentlessly transforming the type and quantity of municipal services that citizens can expect from their local governments. Fire stations may be in short supply in some places, and so are community centers, libraries and other municipal organizations. Some cutbacks in public safety may be reversed, but other reductions are probably here to stay.

State of the City
Municipal finances are heavily intertwined with the states, which face their own challenges. With a $200 billion budget gap heading into fiscal year 2011, states cranked back revenue sharing with cities and towns, which were also seeing a decline in revenues from income and sales taxes. In May, the National League of Cities found that despite upticks in some measures of national economic recovery, “declining fiscal and economic conditions persist in America’s cities.”

Various studies, including one by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, have suggested the fiscal distress could last beyond 2012, as revenues only slowly reach their pre-recession peak. "Cuts to public services, public safety and education are severe and could potentially have lasting long-term consequences," the Fed wrote.

Darker Cities and Barbecues on the Beach
One popular money-saving measure has been to remove some streetlights, as Santa Rosa, Calif. did, or slap an extra charge on residents’ water and sewer bills, as happened in a small Minnesota town. Los Angeles is aiming for shorter hours in city offices to cut power bills as they consider legalizing marijuana as a source of tax revenue. In Daytona Beach, Fla., the local newspaper held a contest to find money-saving or revenue-generating ideas. Among the suggestions: a barbecue contest on the beach and fewer trash pickup days.

Sunny San Jose, Calif. strove to respond to the crisis with measures that would preserve its gilt-edged rating from credit agencies, no mean feat given that it faced a $118.5 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2010-11, which began this month. The city's first step was to wrestle wage concessions totaling 10 percent of worker salaries from six unions, as well as nonunion city employees. Half of the concessions would be permanent; half would last one year. Then came reductions in city services, mainly at libraries, which cut opening hours from 6 days a week to 4.5 days. Mayor Chuck Reed threatened to close 22 community centers unless he extracted the concessions from unionized workers.

San Jose also seized the moment to flatten the management structure of its municipal workforce of 6,500 people. About 30 senior managers lost or will lose their jobs in a process the city hopes will create a trimmer, more focused civil service. "Our strategy is not to look at this as a retraction that can be reversed in the future," said Ed Shikada, San Jose's assistant city manager. "We are taking a look at what the priority services are and how best to deliver them." He added, however: "We're all looking forward to the day that revenues increase."

Putting Out Fires
Flint responded to its budget woes — a $15 million deficit — with tough cuts that everyone hoped would be temporary. Flint lost 23 of 88 fire fighters and two fire stations.

Flint, which was hit disproportionately by layoffs in the auto industry, and has been named one of the worst real estate markets in the country, is by no means the only municipality that has resorted to laying off firefighters and closing stations. A common tactic involves a "brown-out," in which stations are closed on a rolling basis — saving money but leaving certain parts of the locality further away from a fire station than they would otherwise be. In Flint, Kovach's fire station remained open, but with limited equipment, he and his crew often had to wait for pump and ladder trucks to travel from other stations when they responded to fires. 

Need for Quick Response
An April study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that staffing levels are crucial to firefighters' ability to save lives and property. "All these things are time driven, so it is not rocket science to say that, if it takes longer to get there, the outcome is likely to be negative," said Lori Moore-Merrell, a technical specialist with the International Association of Firefighters in Washington.

Although it’s not clear whether Flint's budget cuts cost Recendiz-Trejo his life the night Kovach raced into the burning building, the case drew wide attention in Michigan and elsewhere as a warning of what happens when cuts fall on public safety services. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling's spokeswoman, Dawn Jones, did not return calls seeking comment. The cuts occurred before Walling took office.

The experience prompted Flint to pull out all the stops to find the money to adequately staff its emergency services. In April, Flint won a $6.7 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rehire the laid off firefighters and re-open the stations.