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Ron Kaye: Empty desks, a new way of life

October 14, 2012

The email from Moody's credit rating service that popped up on my computer screen boggled my mind: Glendale was among 40 California cities that were downgraded or are facing downgrades, but Los Angeles and San Francisco could get upgrades.

I'm an old newspaperman who knows a lot more about words than money, but that made no sense at all. How could a fiscally conservative city like Glendale be a worse credit risk than free-spending Los Angeles?

So I dropped by Glendale City Manager Scott Ochoa's office last week in search of answers. What I found were a lot of empty desks everywhere I looked.

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“It's a new way of life for us,” explained Assistant City Manager Yasmin Beers, “after the 122 retirements and the 55 layoffs and the 100-plus vacancies and the 28 positions that we eliminated with redevelopment, and now the 28 with Glendale Water & Power. We're just going to try to settle in and see what this all means for us.”

Since the economy crashed four years ago this month, Glendale has gotten wage concessions and increased contributions to pensions and healthcare from its employee unions — concessions of up to 13.5% of salaries for police and firefighters.

The exception is utility workers who are in stalled talks on an initial contract since voting to be represented by the IBEW.

That's a lot different than L.A., a city 20 times the size of Glendale, where union concessions have been far less substantial and fewer than 500 workers have faced layoffs while three times as many have been transferred to the harbor, airport, utility or other departments that don't rely on the General Fund.

Real budget cuts in tough times versus kicking the budget can down the road so the big bills will come later — that's the way I see the difference between Glendale and L.A.

So I put the Moody's question to Ochoa.

“Los Angeles is like a bull elephant that is so large it has no natural predators,” he said. “What I took away from the Moody's article is that they are so large when you look at the types of (borrowing) instruments that Moody's was looking at, that they can make the argument with a straight face that L.A. is going to be fine. It's so big it can't help but succeed.”

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