Mayor warns of losses if tax declined

WARREN – Although administration officials have focused most of the attention of a proposed 0.5 percent income tax increase on city’s police and fire departments, Mayor Doug Franklin last week said every other general fund likely would be affected in some way if voters say no.

Neither Franklin nor Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa would say the number of people who could be laid off or how they would be selected.

“The number of people that could be affected would depend on the budget at the end of this year,” Cantalamessa said.

With a $23.5 million projected 2017 budget, next year’s general fund budget already is projected to be $1.5 million less than this year’s $25 million budget. If the city’s income tax proposal fails, it is expecting to have a budget deficit of between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in 2017.

“We are not looking at doing across-the-board percentage layoffs from every department because some departments already are so understaffed and are critical to the operations of the city,” Franklin said. “The operations department with 21 employees is one of our largest departments, but it already is woefully undermanned.”

The operations department is important because its employees patch city roads, maintain parks, remove snow during the winter months and building maintenance.

Cantalamessa said personnel cuts in the law department, for example, could affect residents ability for file claims during disputes, property maintenance code violation prosecutions and even some criminal code violations.

The loss of the tax could have less of a negative financial effect on some departments, such as health, because much of its existing budged comes from grants and other resources.

The department’s 2015 budget was $1.3 million, with about $88,787 of that coming from the city’s general fund. The department has averaged a deficit of about $40,000 a year in each of the last five years, according to Deputy Health Commissioner Robert Pinti.

Although it is one of the city’s largest general fund departments, the city’s fire department likely will not face any cuts because of the format of the $2.39 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response – SAFER – grant.

Officials have noted that under the terms of the grant, the number of city firefighters cannot drop below the number it had at the time the city accepted the financial assistance from the federal aid. That would protect current firefighters and the grant would allow the city to grow the department by an estimated 15 firefighters.

In the midst of their efforts to convince city residents to increase the city’s income tax from 2 percent to 2.5 percent, the administration is in contract negotiations with its five unions.

In its last contracts negotiated with the city unions, the administration gave each 1 percent annual wage increases, but simultaneously convinced the unions to accept having its members pay a percentage of the insurance’s premiums.

In 2009, when the city last faced extensive layoffs, it laid off 40 employees, which included including 19 police officers and 11 firefighters, and obtained concessions from every union.

“If we face layoffs because of the failure of this year’s income tax, it will be more severe than occurred at that time, because all of our departments are smaller,” Franklin said.

Layoffs represent one of a number of options available to city officials to reduce the city’s operational budget.

“We are exploring all options,” Franklin said. “We were able to slow this income tax increase when we negotiated with the county to move our police dispatchers to the county’s 911 dispatch center. That saved a half million dollars.”

rsmith@tribtoday.com