City closes nonessential city services on select days in effort to cut costs

Tim Hyon/Staff

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Since 2009, the city of Berkeley has closed certain city offices on select days every year to counter tight budgets and the possibility of employee furloughs.

Each year, in an attempt to generate savings and balance the city’s budget, the city manager designates several voluntary time off, or VTO, days. On these days, certain city services — excluding Berkeley Police Department, Berkeley Fire Department, senior centers and city libraries — are closed to the public, with other services provided on a callback basis.

“We have hard-working city staff and this has been a way to reduce some costs,” said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

City staff for nonessential services can choose to work on VTO days and get paid, take an unpaid day off or use their vacation days and get a paid day off, Chakko said. He added that this allows the city to save money on paying employees back for unused vacation days in the long run.

The program has had some success in generating savings to help balance the budget, with some years more effective than others. In 2011, the program generated nearly $1.5 million in savings, while that year’s general fund was $146 million.

“I’m not sure that the VTO days have been the most effective way of reducing the deficit,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore.

Instead, the strength of VTO days is getting city employees to take their vacation time, so that the city does not have to buy out or pay back the unused vacation time when an employee retires, Moore said.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that the program is “being done in a rational way” and that city residents only occasionally complain.

According to a June report from former city manager Christine Daniel to Berkeley City Council, cost-cutting days, in general, have not had “a significant detrimental effect on the city’s ability to provide quality services.” Because key services remain uncompromised, complaints from the public have been minimal.

“We try to efficiently use services and reduce costs in everything that we do,” Chakko said. “This is a measure we found to reduce costs and at the same time many staff are working and getting things done.”

Because of the past success of the VTO program, Daniel designated 16 VTO days for the current fiscal year. The city expects to save $364,613 this fiscal year over the course of 16 VTO days, according to the report.

But despite the projected savings, the future of the program is in doubt as the savings generated by the program have steadily declined since the 2011-12 fiscal year. According to the June report, if the savings fall below an established benchmark, the program will be terminated for the next fiscal year.

The next cost-cutting day will be March 11.

Contact Sareen Habeshian and Adam Iscoe at [email protected].