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City reacts to Grebien budget

May 9, 2011

PAWTUCKET — Since the proposed budget for the coming year was announced on Friday afternoon, municipal department heads and employees are digesting what it means in terms of impact and the news that it involves the elimination of 54 city jobs.
Of the 54 jobs, Grebien said on Monday that 23 will be by lay-offs and 31 by leaving unfilled the vacancies that come from attrition or retirement to save approximately $3 million. His $198 million budget plan, which avoids any increase in residential, commercial or industrial real estate taxes, also involves generating $3.9 million in revenue from lowering the motor vehicle exemption from $3,400 to $500. Additionally, it depends on gaining $300,000 by eliminating health coverage for members of the City Council and School Committee, eliminating stipends for members of boards and commissions, and instituting five furlough days in the Mayor's Office.
Of the job cuts, 13 positions would come from fire services, with five from actual lay-offs and eight from unfilled vacancies due to retirements. On the police side, there would be no lay-offs but nine positions left vacant that resulted from retirements or attrition.
On the Fire Department, Grebien is also proposing that an engine truck be taken out of service and the bulk of those personnel be used to add a third rescue. “The increase in the number of rescue runs we have warrants this,” he stated.
Currently, there are six engine trucks, two ladder trucks and two rescues. The new plan would take the four shifts of three firefighters that staffed one engine truck and instead switch two firefighters per shift to operate the third rescue (with one position from each shift slated for elimination).
Grebien also said he wants to take the eight firefighters currently in the dispatch center and move them back to regular rotation to reduce Fire Department overtime. He proposes to instead hire eight or possibly 16 part-time civilian dispatchers.
He added that he is hoping to be able to utilize retired firefighters for these positions since these individuals are already trained, but said that all of these dispatcher jobs would be part-time to avoid having to provide benefits.
The mayor said that some of the moves he is proposing, such as changing to civilian dispatchers, is unlikely to create an issue, while the plan to eliminate an engine truck would likely involve a contract dispute with the firefighters' union. Both the police and firefighter unions' current collective bargaining agreements don't expire until June of 2012.
On the overall topic of lay-offs, the mayor said he is not expecting the number to rise beyond what has already been outlined at this time, although he allowed that if other positions are lost to attrition going forward, these might not get filled. He said the FY12 budget was based on the elimination of the 54 positions that have already been announced. “My goal is to maintain service or even improve it, if possible,” he said.
Fire Capt. Robert Neill, president of the firefighters union, said Monday morning that he hasn't gotten into the details yet of the budget and is not sure yet what all of the plans are involving a change to part-time dispatch. However, he did say that the concepts of a civilian dispatch department and the addition of a third rescue have both been the subject of previous union discussions. The third rescue, in particular, is something that the department has been advocating for. “We give up X-amount of runs very year to mutual aid and we lose revenue,” said Neill.
Neill said that the idea of taking eight firefighters out of dispatch and moving them to the trucks and rescues is also something there has been previous discussion about. He said the union wouldn't be opposed to civilian dispatchers, because they would be under the firefighters' collective bargaining agreement. However, the union is opposed to the idea of privatization of the dispatch jobs by an outside company, an idea that is also still being explored by the Grebien administration.
Neill said what worries him most is the proposal to take an engine truck out of service. He agreed that this move makes 12 firefighters available to go somewhere else within the department, yet he said he is concerned about the prospect of lay-offs. “We have a contractual issue with that because there are provisions in our contract. This could generate grievances on the union's behalf that we are hoping to avoid,” he said.
Neill said the fire department is currently down 10 people due to retirements, and the list of trained recruits that had been compiled under the previous administration has been exhausted. He added that the Grebien administration has 25 recruits currently receiving fire training and said the proposed lay-offs of five firefighters '”sends a mixed message.”
Neill added that, concerning the budget, the union is willing to talk with the administration. “We're still at the table and we're still discussing alternatives. We're all still talking,” he stated.
Augie Venice, president of Local 1012, the largest union representing city workers, called the lay-offs “disappointing.” “They were not expected,” he added. He said that he met with all of the 16 employees on Friday who were targeted to lose their jobs, and expressed concern that there would be more to come after July 1. “I'm worried that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Venice said that in comparing last year's budget with the one proposed for 2012, he has seen other positions that apparently not being funded, such as workers in Parks and Recreation and at Daggett Farms. He said an additional loss such as this could mean there is no one to maintain the ballfields or feed the animals at Daggett Farm on the weekends.
Venice said he is also concerned about the elimination of five jobs at the Pawtucket Library, which could mean the potential loss of hundreds of dollars in state aid that is dependent on certain minimum mandates for library staffing and services.
Susan Reed, director of the Pawtucket Library, echoed Venice's concerns, noting that the library was depending on $365,000 in state aid coming in the fall She said the library is already operating at 64 hours a week—one less than the state requires—which was achieved through a waiver after earlier cost-cutting. With the lay-offs, she noted that the staff will be down to 20.3 positions when the state requires 24 staffers.
Reed said the lay-offs involve the loss of the teen librarian, so there will be no teen summer program, a computer resource librarian, which will cut back on the amount of help given to people doing resumes and other computer research, along with a reference desk clerk and a custodian.
Reed noted that the library depends on that anticipated state funding to pay for its operations and also to be eligible for the inter-library borrowing network. She added that some $46,000 items were borrowed from libraries in other communities last year for Pawtucket Library patrons.
On the schools side, where the proposed budget level-funds the school district and does not include the restoration of $2.9 million that was taken away by the city last year, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke said she is remains optimistic.
“The mayor is aware of our needs and we are aware of the city's fiscal constraints,” said Cylke. She noted that the budget proposal, as it stands now, is likely to undergo several more changes in the coming weeks and months.
“I'm a realist,” said Cylke. “But, I'm hoping, as they work through their budget, there is at least some of that $2.9 million that would be returned.” She added that even if $1.9 million is eventually given back to the schools “it helps us tremendously.”

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