Mayor outlines emergency financial plan to Council; says the city’s financial foundation was ripped out from under it

February 11, 2009
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By Seth Daniel

As the city looks to slow its financial downward spiral in the next two years, Mayor Tom Ambrosino unveiled several layoffs and cuts – as well as suggesting such controversial measures as a trash collection fee.

The mayor revealed his plan on Monday night to the City Council in what he called an Economic Address – a speech that took the place of his usual State of the City Address.

The mood was grim and the mayor took to the podium with a no-nonsense delivery. He outlined what he would like to do to make up $1.247 million in cuts to this year’s budget from the state and, potentially, a $3.6 million cut from the state in next year’s budget, which begins on July 1.

Those numbers alone are devastating and the mayor said in a matter of months, the state of the city has dramatically changed.

“If the curtain were to have closed on my tenure as mayor six months ago, I would have left thinking that the city was a better place and was moving forward with a strong foundation,” he told the council. “Instead of looking at a city that’s very strong, now we’re staring in the face of staggering deficits beyond our control and [an upcoming fiscal year] that is even bleaker. It’s as if the financial footings that we built for so long were ripped out from under us.”

However, he added he believed the city will be able to make it through the remainder of this year’s budget and through the upcoming fiscal year budget. If things continue down the same path, though, the following year could mean much worse things.

“We have adequate reserves to make it this year and I think we have enough to make it through next year, but if we’re here in fiscal year 2011 and nothing has changed, we’ll be out of reserves and we’ll be faced with extremely unpleasant options to look at,” he said, wrapping up his presentation.

He added the city would most likely use all of its $1.5 million Stabilization Fund within the next 1-1/2 years.

The plan had numerous sections, and many were very preliminary – dependent on actions of the Legislature and votes of specific city

unions.

Some things that aren’t preliminary are job layoffs and hourly reductions at City Hall, though.

The mayor will lay off 19 employees as of February 20, three of whom are police officers currently enrolled in the Police Academy. When they finish the academy in April, they won’t be hired.

The remainders of layoffs are secretaries-clerks, 911 call takers and other part-time employees – all of which are in City Hall, the library or Parks and Recreation.

The hourly reductions involved 45 municipal employees and seemed to affect the Inspectional Services, Community Development and License Commission the most.

Along those same lines, the Community Development office, the Inspectional Services Offices (Building and Health Departments), the License Commission and the Employee Benefits Office will be closed every Friday. Currently, City hall is open a half-day on Fridays.

Employee Benefits will also be closed Thursday.

Additionally, City Hall will be closed on the last day of each month through June 30. That equals out to five, half-days of work.

As for police, fire and the Department of Public Works, the mayor said he is waiting on votes from their unions. Already, two unions have voted to defer pay raises until fiscal year 2011. The mayor said he has promised no cuts (this year and next year) to those unions that vote for the deferral.

He said he has cut back overtime to the extent that only emergency overtime is granted; meaning that things such as water breaks or snow plowing would be covered.

That means also that city meetings – such as the City Council – will be moved up from their usual starting time of 6 p.m. It is believed that councillors and other board members will be permitted to lock up and close down City Hall by themselves if their meetings go beyond 5 p.m. However, every effort will be made to keep meetings from going beyond that time.

In addition to asking the council to move money around from several different accounts, Ambrosino also requested the city look at a trash collection fee and move to sell the former fire station buildings in Beachmont and Shirley Avenue.

Finally, on Monday, the mayor asked the council to vote for a public hearing to discuss moving retired teachers from a state insurance plan to the city’s insurance plan, saving the city a considerable amount of money. The move would affect 300 retired teachers. Many teachers, especially those residing out of state, will pay higher co-pays but aren’t expected to have any reductions in health care services.

The council voted to send the issue to a public hearing, which should occur sometime in March.

“I expect these teachers to be here to oppose this,” he said. “In many cases they will move from paying [10 percent] to [25 percent]. We simply cannot continue to pay 90 percent contributions.”

The council also voted to hold a public hearing on removing the council from the process of increasing parking ticket fees and transferring that power to the Traffic Commission.

It is believed that the Traffic Commission will significantly increase parking ticket fees if this measure is eventually approved.

In general, councillors were cooperative with the mayor. They requested a workshop to discuss the matter in more detail.

Needless to say, some councillors weren’t totally happy with the suggestions.

Councillor John Powers wanted to know why department heads were taking much smaller cuts than workers under them.

“Why isn’t the same thing happening to department heads?” he asked, noting that he advocates an across the board cut. “I think they should be leading by example and taking the same hit as the subordinates under them…I feel there should have been more input from the City Council and more discussion.”

Other councillors were more critical, saying these cuts weren’t enough to handle the incredible shortfalls that were on the way.

“We are on the brink of bankruptcy,” Councillor George Rotondo told the Journal. “We need to take this medicine today, not tomorrow…We need to make a 10 percent cut across the board now. We need to have a trash fee now and we need to look at fining people who don’t recycle. The mayor is not making the difficult decisions.”

He told the council that, after looking at the numbers, he expects a Proposition 2 1/2 override to be necessary.

“If we do not act today, in 2010 we’ll be asking for an override, and I will not go to my constituents and ask them for a Proposition 2 1/2 override,” he said.

Council President Dan Rizzo took a cautious, but metered approach to the plan, saying that the council will have a more intensive workshop with the mayor to discuss details of the plan.

“This is beyond our control,” he said. “[The state] doesn’t make it easy on us.”

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