CHICO — The Chico City Council Chambers were packed Tuesday evening as a large group of individuals dressed in neon orange filled the seats from wall to wall.
All were employees, or family of employees, of the city’s Public Works Department who took to the lectern during the business from the floor period of the meeting to express concerns and grievances with the city.
As James West, a city employee of 14 years, began to speak before the board, the dozens of orange-clad individuals behind him stood up. West opened by stating he and his fellow workers do not get to meet during the closed session when bargaining is discussed.
“Our members love this city and are proud of the work we do to keep this city running,” West said. “Unfortunately, most of us cannot afford to live and work here. This means we live in different cities and results in us not being able to be a part of the community we serve. Our kids don’t get to go to school here. Our families don’t get to participate in the community when we live 30 minutes or an hour away.”
The employees are currently in the process of bargaining with the city in regard to pay.
“Our kids don’t get to enjoy the tree lighting ceremony that we set up,” West said. “We want to be a part of this community but without the city investing in us, that’s not going to happen.”
During the public comment period as well as business from the floor, speakers each get three minutes to speak but the council cannot act on anything brought up that wasn’t in the released agenda.
Steven Hutton, who said he has worked with the Chico Public Works Department for two years, said his experience working for the city has been bittersweet, adding that there is a substantial pay gap between Chico employees and those elsewhere.
“At the current time, an individual with certs and experience such as ours is being offered twice the wage in Paradise, Orland and Oroville,” Hutton said. “I myself cannot afford a house here in the city limits at the current wage I am working with. I am forced to live outside the city and at the added cost of fuel and travel time, this challenge is constantly conflicting me because I need to provide a good lifestyle for my family, but I love Chico and the coworkers that I have gotten to know.”
An error in the reading as well as the video of the meeting swapped the names of West and Hutton as they were speaking.
The employees with the Public Works Department haven’t had a cost of living pay raise in 12 years.
City Manager Mark Orme said when he came on in 2013, the city’s finances were in jeopardy and it took a lot to get them in order which meant holding off raises.
“I will say we will continue to bargain in good faith and we are hopeful that we will resolve bargaining in a way that is fair to all,” Orme said. “The city has a responsibility to its employees to treat its employees fairly but also has a responsibility to the community to make sure it has a balanced budget.”
Orme complimented the workers who have been behind the push to increase wages.
“While I can’t speak specifically to the negotiations, I can say that I am really proud of those men and women in the Public Works Department. We’ve seen what they mean to the community and that they take pride in what they do to keep the streets clean and honor our city. … I know that the city truly appreciates all the effort and sacrifices they’ve made.”
James Erven was the final member of the group to speak Tuesday night and he focused heavily on the kind of work done by the Public Works employees. Erven has worked for the city for 15 years and currently handles repairs and maintenance for traffic and street lights around Chico.
“There are two of us that do this in town,” Erven said. “There are over 100 traffic signals and there are over 7,000 streetlights. There’s plenty of work for us. We do important and critical work on a daily basis. We are the ones who fix intersections when it is in flash or when someone drives through a pole and it’s not working at all.”
Erven said there were three separate instances in the last month in which drivers hit light poles and knocked them down in the street and employees have had to come secure it at night.
The employees clean up debris after storms and car crashes and also clean up around homeless camps along with a lengthy list of maintenance throughout Chico, Erven said.
Negotiations are set to continue between the employees and the city.
All public employees salaries for Chico and north state cities and counties can be found at transparentcalifornia.com.
The Chico City Council meets at 6 p.m. most first and third Tuesdays of the month at 421 Main St. Meetings are free and open to the public.