Voluntary furloughs are helping city, but not enough

December 20, 2010 3:30:31 PM PST
With tens of millions of dollars in the hole, 2011 will no doubt be a year of pinching pennies for the city of Houston.

Right now, part of the city's financial burden is being put on the backs of its employees. And with the new year, that burden will be even heavier as voluntary furloughs become mandatory days off without pay.

The voluntary furlough program is increasing in popularity. On Friday, 3 percent of the city's civilian workforce was off voluntarily, which is the most since the program was announced in early December. However, it may not be enough. The city is simply running out of volunteers and time to close the budget gap before mandatory furloughs are announced.

Hundreds of Houston city employees dropped cash beneath the mayor's tree in the last two weeks, taking an unpaid day off to try and close a big budget hole at City Hall.

But even big boxes look small under big trees, and so far, there aren't nearly enough voluntary days off to close the city budget gap.

"You haven't taken yours?" we asked city employee Jamie Montgomery.

"No," she replied.

"Don't plan to?" we asked.

"No," Montgomery said.

The mayor put out the call for voluntary furloughs on December 3.

"There still may be forced furloughs, mandatory furloughs next year, and taking a voluntary furlough day will not prevent those mandatory furloughs," Mayor Annise Parker said during the announcement.

Now she knows the bottom line impact isn't nearly enough.

Through last Friday, 790 city employees volunteered for days off. They saved the city $164,411. It's a start, but unfortunately a small one. The city needs to find $6 million in payroll savings, which makes forced days off next year a sure thing.

"I am sure it's not going to be enough, but I am proud that they gave what they had," City Employee Union Chief Melvin Hughes said.

Hughes said he hoped there would be hundreds more volunteers -- maybe enough to hold off the expected six days of forced furloughs for every city civilian employee next year. But it doesn't look good.

"We did our best, but our best is not good enough; it's not going to make it," Hughes said.

That's why it's easier to understand Montgomery's decision to hold onto everything she can now.

"People think it's just a day, but that day means a lot of money," Montgomery said.

Mayor Parker is likely to announce mandatory furloughs sometime after Christmas Day and before New Year's Day. It could be five or six days.

Employees who volunteered this year could still be forced to take just as many days off as someone who doesn't volunteer.

Houston's police officers and firefighters are exempt from the furlough program, since the city would have to pay others time and a half to cover their shifts, which would cost the city more money.


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