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New London — Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Friday that he may be able to negotiate with the city's public safety unions to avoid laying off 25 fire department and 10 police department employees.
"I'm hopeful for a zero layoff,'' Finizio said during a press conference in City Hall, just a day after he notified 35 public safety workers that their jobs may be eliminated to balance the proposed 2012-13 budget. "This is absolutely the last thing the administration wanted to do. It's not a bluff. It's not blustering or politicking."
Although Finizio told the City Council just last week that he could "live with" the proposed $83 million budget, and though on Monday he assured the Board of Finance that the budget was bare bones but acceptable, on Friday he said he did not realize how deeply the budget would affect city services.
"I was shocked when I learned what layoffs were needed,'' the mayor said.
Finizio said he conferred with fire Chief Ron Samul and police Chief Margaret Ackley before announcing the impending layoffs.
On Thursday night the mayor issued a press release announcing that fire and police department employees would be getting layoff notices on June 1. The layoffs would reduce the fire department by about 30 percent and the police department by about 11 percent. The city would save about $1.2 million with the layoffs — about $545,000 in the fire department and $581,000 in the police department.
"It was very surprising that it takes so many to save so little,'' Finizio said.
Jane Glover, the city's chief administrative officer, said she has been talking with both unions to find concessions. "They recognize New London's finance problems,'' she said. "This is not a tactic. This is a reality.''
In a separate press conference Friday in front of fire headquarters an hour after the mayor's on Friday, Rocco Basilica, the city's firefighter union president, said employees hired since 1996 would be let go. That would include Alfred Mayo, the first black firefighter hired by the department since 1978. Mayo was fired by the city and pulled from the state fire academy in December, only to be rehired two weeks ago.
"He'll be laid off the same day he's sworn in, on June 1," Basilica said of Mayo.
Basilica said Finizio's announcement was a "completely dysfunctional" way to negotiate, adding that the statement came after his union had proposed a counter-offer during a Thursday morning negotiation session. "It was a substantial savings to the city," he said of the offer. "They had no interest in it."
Basilica called the potential layoffs "a safety concern for everyone involved." Two of the 25 to lose their jobs would be fire inspectors Bridget Yuknat and Vernon Skau, both of whom are captains, he said. The remaining 23 layoffs would be firefighters, he said, and with five vacancies already left unfilled, the firefighting force would be reduced to 44.
Because the union has "minimum manning" rules of at least 18 firefighters on duty per shift, the overtime hours and continual working hours would wear on the group, Basilica said.
Minimum staffing levels call for a lieutenant and two firefighters to be on board each engine responding to emergencies. Two firefighters must be on a ladder truck and two firefighters/medical technicians must respond to each ambulance call.
Under Finizio's layoff plan, two lieutenants would be laid off, meaning the other two lieutenants would have to cover the vacant slots.
"Our firefighters are going to be living here, basically," Basilica said.
But both Ackley and Samul said the layoffs would not jeopardize public safety.
"Our response time will stay consistent,'' Samul said.
Under the proposed budget, the fire department would receive about $8.9 million, which is about $800,000 more than the current budget. But Finizio said that for years the fire department has been underbudgeted and overspending. Each year, the department is $500,000 to $700,000 over budget, nearly all because of overtime costs.
Finizio said Friday one way to find savings in the fire budget would be to offer retirement incentives to older members of the department by negotiating a deferred benefit plan.
"We can't mandate, we have to negotiate,'' Finizio said. He told the council two weeks ago that he may be able to find about $900,000 in savings by offering such a retirement incentive.
As for the negotiations, Basilica said "there's nothing that's not on the table," including the retirement incentive plan. He said there have been two meetings with the city thus far, with a third scheduled for the end of next week.
"We're doing the best we can to play ball," Basilica said. "We're not that far apart, and we have another meeting scheduled for May 25."
The proposed police budget is about $12 million, which is about the same as the current year's estimated budget. But Ackley said the department has been budgeted at about $600,000 dollars less than what she estimates is needed for 2012-13. "There are no reserve funds in place, cost overruns are not an option,'' she said in an email to The Day. "Reduction in services that enhance community policing, quality of life, and crime prevention initiatives are necessary to preserve officers available to respond to calls for service."
Ackley said she hoped ultimately to preserve all positions but had to be realistic about making the necessary cuts to stay within the adopted budget.
The City Council and Board of Finance have tentatively agreed to the $83 million budget for the next fiscal year. It represents about a 1.5 percent increase from the current budget but is about $4.5 million less than what Finizio had asked for.
The budget as it stands represents an 8.3 percent increase in the tax rate.
The City Council is expected to put its final approval on the budget Monday.