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“Library books and materials budget reduced?”

“That’s happened, yeah …”

“Urban forestry services funding — what’s that?”

“Basically, that’s trimming street trees. We got rid of the crews. I think we’ve got, like, one guy left. So if there’s an emergency — if a tree falls over — we can get it, but we’re not trimming trees any more.”

I’m sitting at a polished wooden table in Chula Vista City Manager Jim Sandoval’s spacious office. Sandoval and I are working through a pessimistic list that he made up last October titled “Budget Reduction Plan Service Impacts.” I’m asking him which of the long list of cuts to city services actually happened.

Most of them did, it turns out.

One by one, I tick off the services that the city no longer provides, or offers at far lower levels than it once did: Graffiti abatement (“One guy from the sewage department does that now, one day a week, but we’re getting real far behind”); library hours (“there will be longer hours of non-operation”); recreation centers, baby and toddler story times at the library, support of local parks and nature centers, the list goes on.

Around us, the gorgeous, modern civic center, built in 2002 amidst the city’s boom, is eerily quiet. Another 88 city employees were laid off in Chula Vista last month. That brings the total number of city layoffs since 2007 to 277.

That’s layoffs. Not unfilled vacancies that were left open. Not retirements or kooky accounting. Layoffs.

The staff reductions, and the resulting massive drawback in services, are pretty extraordinary.

This city, whose gleaming libraries were once open long hours every day, now closes most of its libraries on Friday afternoon and keeps them shuttered the whole weekend, opening them again on Monday morning. The city’s one senior center used to be open all day, seven days a week. Now it’s open Monday to Friday, but only for four hours, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Even public safety, that sacred cow of municipal government, has felt the pinch. There haven’t yet been layoffs (“I’ve been in law enforcement for 30 years and have never seen — never dreamed of seeing police officer layoffs,” Police Chief David Bejarano later tells me,) but police officer numbers have still dwindled significantly in this city of almost a quarter-million.

Chula Vista has pulled detectives out of its investigations division to cover street beats and answer emergency calls. The police department has cut its participation in task forces — a step the San Diego Police Department employed a few years ago in the midst of its own crisis. Police officers have retired and not been replaced. Hiring’s been frozen and, this month, more officers are being offered early retirement.

And, in a move few here ever expected, police officers, firefighters and the vast majority of city workers have seen their take-home pay cut, cut and cut again as the city has gradually rolled back the generous benefits it was once famous for.

“It’s a sacrifice. I’m sure some people are thinking ‘Hey, we had a contract through June of 2012!’” said Police Chief Bejarano. “But that’s the sacrifice we all make in this economy.”

Chula Vista has been getting closer and closer each month to becoming a Libertarian’s ideal city, a municipality where essentially only core services — administrative government and public safety — are actually run by the public sector.

Well, maybe that’s stretching it, but the budget looks pretty thin.

And the cuts aren’t over yet. This fiscal year, Chula Vista faces a projected deficit near $19 million. That’s more than 13 percent of its annual budget.

Last year, the city tapped redevelopment funds to the tune of $10 million to plug the deficit. This year, city leaders claim that their cutbacks, combined with deals they have inked with unions to draw back the city’s contributions to employee pensions, will be enough to get Chula Vista through the next fiscal year.

I’ll be taking a look at that pension deal in my next post.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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