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Oxnard’s Budget Puts Some Jobs on the Line : Cutbacks: Officials say layoffs are likely in coming fiscal year’s spending plan, which includes a potential $2-million deficit.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last year around this time, the buzzword at Oxnard City Hall was streamline.

Seeking to cure a crippling budget shortfall, city leaders set out to shrink the number of city departments without sacrificing municipal services or workers. The new approach saved money and jobs.

This year, the buzzword is re-engineer : a reference to a series of cost-saving staff proposals ranging from the city operating its own animal shelter to allowing patrons to check out their own books at the branch library.

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But no new ideas, no matter how good, are likely to save city jobs this time, officials say.

Facing a $2-million deficit, the Oxnard City Council on Tuesday will start the painful process of adopting its 1994-95 fiscal year budget, a spending plan that calls for up to 37 layoffs and the elimination of about 18 vacant positions.

The cutbacks, if adopted, would be the most sweeping in city history.

“Unfortunately for us, we have nowhere else to go,” said Mayor Manuel Lopez, who has been through plenty of budget-cutting sessions but none with as much on the line as this one. “The only options we have are to raise taxes, cut services or cut employees. This time, I think some employees will have to go.”

Budget analysts caution that the budget proposal represents a worst-case scenario, a desperate balancing act designed to counter the state’s practice of withholding fees that used to trickle down to local governments.

The more money the state withholds, officials say, the more workers will lose their jobs.

“We are at the mercy of the state government,” Lopez said. “The big fish eats the little fish.”

In recent years, state cuts have resulted in a loss of $13 million to Oxnard. As a result, nearly 200 positions have been sliced from a work force that stood at 1,100 four years ago.

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That reduction has been achieved without layoffs, for the most part. Many employees who have left the city haven’t been replaced. Some workers have been shuffled from one department to another to fill the most critical vacancies.

City officials say they will try to transfer to other departments those workers who hold jobs targeted for elimination. But they say that more than likely, some skilled and valuable employees will be out of work.

“I don’t think there is any way to avoid it,” Councilman Tom Holden said. “We just can’t assume that things are going to get a lot better in the next five to 10 years.”

What Holden and others say they want to avoid is a reduction in the current level of city services.

In past years, Ventura County’s largest city has opted to cut services instead of people. Faced with tough choices during times of survival economics, city leaders looked on as park restrooms closed and the city’s police force became one of the lowest staffed in the state.

Only recently have officials begun to reverse that trend. Last year, the City Council agreed to take $500,000 from reserves to hire eight more police officers. And Holden said he is working on a plan to reopen the restrooms.

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“What is our responsibility in city government? Is it our responsibility to provide jobs or to provide services?” Holden said. “When it comes down to the ultimate decision, our responsibility is to provide a city government that is effective and efficient, and provides a certain level of service.”

Still, council members say they know that they will face plenty of opposition as they pore over the budget during Tuesday and Thursday study sessions.

Union leaders have already expressed concern about the potential for layoffs. But at this time, council members say they have little choice.

“I think what has happened is that city government, and, rightfully so, has been treading very gingerly on these areas,” Councilman Andres Herrera said. “Now as we embark on this new episode, there are unfortunately some harsh realities we have to contend with.”

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