Back on the job
Voluntary furloughs end for 29 Warren city employees
WARREN — The 29 city employees who accepted voluntary furloughs in May are expected to return to work this week.
Most of those 13 who accepted the furloughs work out of the city’s water department, according to city records.
The next highest number of employees — eight — work in the operations department; water pollution control had six employees; and one employee each works out of the city’s health and finance departments.
While these workers were on furlough, they were eligible to receive their state unemployment insurance, as well as an additional $600 per week in federal unemployment that was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
City officials asked employees to take voluntary layoffs, or furloughs, in the spring in an effort to cut expenses. This was in anticipation of lower tax revenues due to closures that occurred during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Mike DeWine shut down major sectors of the state’s economy in an effort to get Ohioans to remain in their homes to slow the COVID-19 spread.
As part of the voluntary agreement, the city promised employees they would be able to maintain their health insurance. City-provided health insurance usually only lasts for 30 days during layoffs.
At the time, city officials estimated the shutdown could cause the city to lose 20 percent of its tax budget. That was estimated to be $4.5 million for the year.
City Treasurer Tom Letson last week said total tax collections through July 30 are 11.38 percent less than for the same period in 2019.
According to income tax records, the city has collected $12,011,531.33 in total taxes so far this year. At the same point in 2019, the city collected $13,553,454.08. The city has collected $1,541,922.75 less this year, which is 11.38 percent less than in 2019.
“We are doing better than anyone expected us to be doing,” Letson said. “This tax collected includes everything from the close of the extended tax season.”
City Auditor Vince Flask notes the city’s general fund revenues so far this year are $15,436,806.42, which is lower than the $17,548,719.43 that was available during the same period in 2019. General fund expenses so far in 2020 are $15,292,301.84 compared to $17,457,890.11 in 2020.
For Utilities Department Director Franco Lucarelli, the three months some city employees were able to be furloughed were particularly difficult because most who accepted the furloughs were from his water department.
“All of those employees that did not take furloughs worked longer hours, especially those in distribution, and employees in administration had to work different shifts, so our payment window remained opened,” Lucarelli said.
Since the layoffs, the city has had 24 water main breaks in 2020 versus 26 water main breaks during the same period in 2019, according to Lucarelli.
Lucarelli said 12 employees in the water department’s distribution division worked 425 overtime hours from May 17 until July 30. Last year, 21 employees earned 439 overtime hours.
“The distribution crew has been working long hours and a lot of overtime,” he said. “They’ve been working 13- to 14-hours days. They’ve been doing a yeoman’s job.”
Lucarelli emphasized the department has been able to keep up with the demand by making sure all of the emergencies were addressed, while work orders that could wait were delayed.
“When employees come back from furlough, we will begin working to take care of some of those work orders that stacked up,” he said.
With the second-largest number of employees coming from the city’s operations department, Safety Service Director Eddie Colbert said he told the foreman there to make sure grasses still got cut.
“All in all, we have to give a lot of credit to the department because it kept the grasses down, especially in the parks and around the baseball diamonds,” Colbert said. “We, sometimes, did not get all of the branches that had fallen and some areas weed wacked.”
Colbert said when residents called in with concerns about high grasses in their neighborhoods, the city worked to get their complaints addressed.
“We got lucky that we did not get a lot of rain during this period, so grass growth was slowed down,” he said. “In the water department, they were able to fix the major water line breaks, and, when possible, delay working on the smaller issues.”
FALL IS COMING
Now that the seasons will be transitioning from summer to fall, Colbert said the city will need all of its employees in the operations department back, preparing vehicles for the fall and winter seasons.
“We can’t hope that we will be lucky again that this winter … we’ll have the same level of snowfall,” he said.
Colbert emphasized the city sought early furloughs to prevent a second wave of layoffs later in the year.
“We do feel more comfortable today than we did in mid-April and May,” he said. “This has helped, but we are not out of the woods. A lot will depend on what happens over the next several months.”
Colbert said if there is another shutdown, especially if it affects factories and manufacturers, it would be a problem for the city’s budget.
The city actively worked over the last several months to cut down overtime, reduce purchasing and hiring, he said.
Flask noted that overtime, citywide, has been reduced by $104,801.36 from this time in 2019, with $34,618.60 coming from general fund departments.
Although city offices have been closed to the public since May, Colbert emphasized that its operations have been functioning.
Filling the city coffers
Warren’s income tax collections since 2015:
Year July 30 Dec. 31
2020 $12,021,280 Not applicable
2019 $13,759,994 $22,376,023
2018 $13,319,875 $21,616,201
2017 $12,138,444 $19,765,318
2016 $10,907,069 $17,380,966
2015 $10,402,040 $$16,880,570
Source: Warren Income Tax Department