When you talk about budget cuts, people want to know how many city employees will be laid off.

The answer for the city of San Diego is unknown.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget plan calls for the elimination of about 500 positions, around 200 of which are now filled. The rest are vacant positions.

But it’s not true that budget cuts will force 200 people to lose their jobs.

The city employs a system where workers whose positions are eliminated can transfer to vacant jobs within the city provided their skills match up. If a clerk position in the library department is eliminated, for example, that employee can become a clerk in the engineering department.

The city will have 400 vacant positions open if all these budget cuts go through, city Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone said. But about 150 of them are sworn police and fire jobs that wouldn’t be available for civilian employees, providing less flexibility for possible transfers.

Neither Goldstone nor white-collar union head Michael Zucchet could say how many people would lose their jobs entirely.

“I think it’s too early to speculate,” Zucchet said.

Another point is worth mentioning. Just because a job is open in another department doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for an employee.

Karen Guffey, a longtime civilian investigative aide with the police department, spoke at today’s City Council meeting because her job is on the chopping block. Later, she said she expect to be able to find another city position.

“With 30 years of seniority, that is a possibility,” Guffey said. “But I’ve spent 30 years in the police department. That is who I am. I don’t want to go work at the Water Department. I mean, I will if I have to, but my knowledge is in law enforcement.”

— LIAM DILLON

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