Finizio's proposals for change under fire

New London - Assistant City Clerk Dawn Currier, who began her new job at the end of January, opened up the newspaper last week to learn that her position had been eliminated.

"I can't take it. This past week has been more stressful than anything you could imagine,'' said Currier, who has contracts to sell her home in Uncasville and move to New London later this month. "And it's not just affecting me. It's every office within the city. Regardless of me losing my job, everyone is scrambling. We're getting our work done, but it's hard to focus.''

Currier was also perplexed on Tuesday, when she said she heard she may not be losing her job after all. At Monday's City Council meeting, City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan interpreted the City Charter to mean that the city must have an assistant city clerk.

But Currier said no one has told her anything official. "It's pretty bad when you have to check the New London Day website a couple times a day to find where your life is heading,'' she said.

Currier is one of about 50 workers who are facing layoffs or retirement since Daryl Justin Finizio became mayor in December.

When residents voted in the mayor form of government in 2010, they wanted change. Now, six months after the election of the city's first strong mayor in decades, Finizio is altering the face of city government.

Since January, seven long-time employees have retired or are planning to retire, taking with them more than 100 combined years of institutional knowledge. They include the city clerk, assistant city clerk, two police captains, the assessor and the personnel director. The special assistant to the city manager also left his position.

About 45 others have been put on notice that they will lose their jobs on June 30 if there aren't adequate union concessions. Positions scheduled for elimination include 68 teachers, 25 firefighters, 10 police officers, four employees in the building-inspection department, three in public works, two in information technology and one in recreation.

"I've never seen it as bad as this,'' said one city employee who asked not to be identified.

Firefighters have been picketing outside City Hall and attending City Council meetings protesting cuts to about a third of the force.

"I feel like I'm being punished for being a firefighter here in New London,'' Reginald Hanson told the council last week. "I'm scared for myself, for my family, for my brother firefighters, and I'm scared for the citizens of New London.''

Finizio said Tuesday he was unsure what would happen with the five positions - assistant city clerk, director of development and planning, the mayor's office administrator, the director of risk management and the new deputy police chief - that the City Council eliminated last week during budget deliberations. He said he has yet to review his options.

Finizio added that he will go forward with other layoffs unless he gets "modest concessions" from the firefighters' union on minimum staffing levels. In return, he's offering a defined pension plan so the oldest members of the department, who are making the most money, can retire. That would open up positions for younger firefighters who earn less money.

"I don't want to see anyone lose their job or lose their home or business because of a tax increase," Finizio said. "The only way to avoid layoffs and maintain services is with a 20 percent tax increase.''

Finizio said he's been forced to take such drastic measures because for years the city has overestimated revenues and underfunded departments, leading to "a worst-case scenario" of a $12 million deficit over three years.

The mayor has proposed an $87 million budget with a 20 percent increase in taxes, which would have preserved all services and jobs. The City Council came back with an $83 million budget, which is about an 8 percent increase in taxes. Finizio announced the layoffs after the council approved the first of three readings of the budget.

City Council President Michael Passero, who has not spoken with the mayor since layoff notices were sent out, said the administration has not been forthright with the council.

"It's an unmitigated disaster,'' Passero said Tuesday. "There's no leadership coming from the administration. They're completely incompetent. And if they don't sit up and fly right, we're careening toward disaster."

Some in the community agree with Passero, who is a firefighter, and are advocating for a new charter revision commission to at least clarify language about the mayor's duties, powers and responsibilities.

"We're at a tipping point,'' said Gordon Videll, a New London attorney who was among a group of people proposing reopening the City Charter.

On Monday the council was one vote short of the required five votes to establish a charter revision commission.

"Thus far, charter revision has turned out to a bad failed experiment,'' said Videll, who acknowledges he was opposed to the strong mayor form of government. "It needs to be changed in order for our city and our community to move forward."

But Finizio said he is facing immense institutional resistance. "Only a strong mayor will be able to breach the status quo,'' he said.

Passero disagreed. "He needs to stop challenging the authority of the council," he said of the mayor. "He's the executive. He has to run the day-to-day operations of the city, has to work within the budget that the council gives him, and he has to respect the policies of the council."

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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