Selma's top-down approach to solving budget struggles

FRESNO, Calif.

Selma was facing a $700,000 budget shortfall this year, which is a lot for a city with a total budget of only about $16 million. They're fixing some of it by reducing pensions to all employees, but the rest comes from eliminating two positions at the top of important departments.

The streets of downtown Selma are silent on a Wednesday afternoon. Most businesses are empty, without a customer in sight.

"Our downtown is, you know, there's not much going on downtown," said Adolph Sanchez, who owns Precision Computers across from the Selma police department. "Businesses are closing down, a couple buildings."

The struggles of business are fast becoming the struggles for city government. Without customers, businesses aren't collecting sales taxes, and when they are, they're finding it hard to write checks to the city.

"We're a little behind because of that," Sanchez said. "We're on a payment arrangement because we can't pay all our city taxes, our licenses."

The problem has trickled into the city's budget, where council members say expenses have been trimmed to almost nothing. The city has already forced employees to take unpaid furlough Fridays and they're facing cuts to their pensions as well.

"The things that need to be done today to keep a city going are very, very extreme," said city council member Dennis Lujan. "They hurt a lot of people."

Retirements are thinning the ranks of city employees, but right now, the city is only looking at two layoffs: Fire chief Jeff Kestly and public works director Bob Weaver. But council members say the city has a deep bench of good employees who will pick up the slack.

"Everything is going to be taken care of," Lujan said. "Our fire response time won't go down."

Selma's city council is expected to vote on a balanced budget in two weeks. Council members say there won't be more layoffs unless the pension reductions don't get through employee unions.

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