By Steven Fletcher
The Fire Department is down two firefighter-paramedics after a personnel hearing last week, with layoffs effective as of Monday.
The layoff hearing came after Mayor Carolyn Kirk cut three positions in the Fire Department for the 2012 fiscal year, with two of the layoffs effective this year. The third comes from not replacing a retiring firefighter. The cuts come as her proposed budget aims to cut 76 positions from both city and school payrolls. The Mayor's fiscal year 2011 layoffs in the fire department went before a personnel department hearing to determine if the Mayor had just cause to eliminate the positions.
That's because the firefighter's union contract contains a "no-layoff" provision. The provision states that if the city budgeted for a position, they can't cut that position in the same fiscal year. As long as Gloucester can pay the firefighters, it has to keep them on.
But David Bain, the city's Personnel Director, unavailable for comment on this story, determined that the city had the required just cause because of its current financial distress.
"The City of Gloucester is facing severe fiscal difficulties for the forthcoming year, and all avenues have been explored other than personnel reduction," his decision memorandum states.
According to the decision, all city departments will experience, or have experienced cuts in staff. Those cuts will come either through attrition, where the city won't fill vacancies, or outright layoffs. The decision states that Jeff Towne, city financial officer, said the layoffs needed to happen early so that unemployment liability expenses would fall under the current fiscal year, rather than next year. Some of the money available in this year's budget, according to Bain's decision, could be used to lessen the layoff's fiscal blow.
Towne didn't return a call for comment on this story.
The decision cited that 1.8 people need to be laid off to save one salary. The document states that if the city pushes the layoffs to next year, it will need to cut more positions. The action, according to Towne in the report, would limit future unemployment liability.
The firefighter's union won't rest with just Bain's decision. Union President Phil Bouchie said, in an e-mail, that the union will file an appeal regardless of whether or not the city has just cause. The union, said Bouchie, wants an independent panel or person to make the final decision.
The appeal could go to an independent arbitrator or Massachusetts Civil Service, he said. But that's up to the union and the employee to decide.
The union's attorney, Joseph Sandulli, of Sandulli Grace, a Boston legal firm that represents unions, also did not return a call for this story.
Bain's decision states that Towne said he did not know about the collective bargaining agreement's no-layoff clause when the layoffs first came down the pike. He said the city explored several other options including a furlough program, and an early retirement program, which would have offered city workers nearly $9,000 to retire. The council narrowly rejected the Mayor's early retirement program. She did not return a call for comment on this story.
Bouchie said the decision to layoff two firefighters, Douglas Sherman and Chad Mota, both paramedics as well, may cost the city in the long run. Several years ago, he said, the city ended up providing back-pay to firefighters laid off before the end of the fiscal year.
"She's rolling the dice at the taxpayer's expense," he said.
Bouchie said the layoffs will take the department down to 68 firefighters next year, placing roughly 17 firefighters in each of the four groups that rotate shifts during the week. He said that with the current staff, the department will struggle next year to keep the Bay View and West Gloucester Stations open, and the two ambulances going. He said the department may follow this year's model and use overtime to make up for cuts in personnel.
"Without staffing or overtime the current staffing levels will not allow Bay View to be open 95 percent of the time," he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.