San Bernardino Seal

One in four have left in the wake of city’s financial troubles

Ryan Hagen, Staff Writer
Posted: 03/23/2013 06:48:17 PM PDT
Updated: 03/24/2013 12:54:01 AM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO – Sewer maintenance worker Stephen Johns’ coworkers and supervisor weren’t surprised when he told them he was interviewing for another job, or that management, morale and pay were all higher in a city that wasn’t struggling through a bankruptcy proceeding.

After all, they’ve seen 285 fellow employees – nearly one out of four – leave since July, when they say the City Council’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection turned a steady trickle away from an understaffed and unhappy workforce into a panicked flood.

The only surprise was that Johns said no to the other job.

“I really had to explain why I didn’t take it,” he said.

It was because the commute would be too long.

“They’re pretty much all trying to get out,” Johns said of his co-workers. “We’ve been told by various different supervisors and department heads, ‘You know what? If you find a better opportunity out there, take it.’ When you hear a supervisor or a manager or a department head that is not trusting the future of the city, it’s going to have a trickle-down effect.”

In an aging, high-crime city that had already laid off more than 250 workers in the four years before its July announcement that bankruptcy was unavoidable, the signs of cutbacks are everywhere.

Police emergency response times, as of December, have crept up by 30 seconds to 5.4 minutes – with non-emergency calls averaging 30 minutes – as potholes multiply, many streetlights are left unlit and parks fill with trash, graffiti and nuisance crimes.

That feeds into morale that any city worker will tell you is about as low as it’s ever been. That includes the top elected worker, who says there’s not just a financial crisis but a personnel crisis.

“In difficult economic circumstances, depression does set in, in individual lives and corporate lives, when the way forward is not clear – and certainly it is not right now in our city,” Mayor Pat Morris said. “You talk about a barometer of how we’re doing in leadership, we’ve lost a host of essential positions.”

When Community Development Director Margo Wheeler announced this past week that she had taken a job in Palm Springs, her resignation letter joined those of the heads of the city’s Finance, Human Resources, Public Works, Refuse and Fire departments.

Then-City Manager Charles McNeely announced his resignation in March, and when Assistant City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller took the top unelected position, her old spot wasn’t filled. Travis-Miller left in February.

Uncertainty feeds exodus

That kind of exodus is hard to turn around, according to Michael Sweet, a bankruptcy and restructuring lawyer at San Francisco-based Fox Rothschild, but it isn’t unusual.

“I’m not surprised that people are looking for employment elsewhere,” Sweet said. “There’s uncertainty about what the future holds for city employees in San Bernardino, there are fewer people doing the same number of tasks, plus you have the added layer of the bankruptcy, so at least the financial folks, in addition to their day-to-day job, are having to deal with requests for info about the bankruptcy, so it’s stressful.”

The city of Stockton, which declared bankruptcy shortly before San Bernardino, has also cut deeply, as did Vallejo after it filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

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