City lays off 82 employees

New Haven’s budget troubles are hitting home for 82 city employees for whom today was their last day of work.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced significant layoffs in both the police department and the public schools Thursday. At a press conference at City Hall, DeStefano said that he would cut 96 positions (14 of which were vacant). This includes 16 police officers and 42 jobs from public schools: nine teachers and several school nurses, truancy and drug prevention personnel, and other school staff. DeStefano warned that many more jobs would be destroyed if the city’s public sector unions would not accept changes to their benefits and pensions.

“I know that as mayor I’m responsible for these choices,” DeStefano said. “I also know that if I had not made these choices, many more people would have been negatively affected.”

TENSIONS HIGH

The cuts came amid a day marked by high tensions between the city and its unions.

Led by the 16 officers who lost their jobs, more than 200 police officers marched in protest from police headquarters to City Hall Thursday morning. When they arrived, the officers and their union leaders told members of the media and passersby that the city would now be less safe with a depleted police force.

DeStefano did not budge, forcing the 16 officers to quit that day as scheduled.

“Statements that citizens are unsafe or ought to arm themselves are inaccurate, irresponsible, and beneath those who make them,” DeStefano said. “They are made to frighten and intimidate.”

The union leaders should have known their tactics would not work, DeStefano added.

CUTS HIT SCHOOLS

The layoffs come at a time when the city is pursuing several high-profile school reform efforts.

President of the New Haven Federation of Teachers David Cicarella said the city tried to avoid cutting instructional staff and limit its cuts to support staff such as paraprofessionals. Nine teacher positions were eliminated, four of which were not currently filled.

Three administrators, five part-time clerical employees, five paraprofessionals, five school security officers, and six drug prevention and truancy officers were laid off.

Cicarella said the layoffs are the first he has seen in his 33 years as president of the teachers’ union. Still, he said, the impact on the public school’s reform initiatives will be limited.

“We will continue to implement our School Change Initiative reforms,” Hoffman said in the press release. “These cuts will make it more challenging, but we are deeply committed to attaining our goals.”

DeStefano said that while these firings may seem big to the people and families they affect, the city could be facing larger cuts soon. The current draft of the 2011-2012 Board of Education budget calls for 190 position eliminations, although DeStefano said this number may decrease.

“I wish I could say there will be no more layoffs, but I can’t,” said Mayo, who earned $226,921 this year. “Without a significant change in the budget outlook, we face deeper job cuts later this year.”

NOT A SURPRISE

While DeStefano acknowledged the pain the layoffs will cause those affected, he said they should not have come as a surprise.

DeStefano said he has warned the city’s unions on multiple occasions that solving the city’s budget crisis will require layoffs unless unions cooperate with efforts to reform pension and benefits packages. Union leaders have urged that the city’s fiscal issues be solved by revenue increases, DeStefano said.

But the only way to address a budget gap that will grow to $20 million next year, he said, is to reform the system governing the pension and health care plans of city employees.

The various unions representing these employees, however, are not willing to negotiate on pensions and benefits he said. Without any other options to turn to, the mayor said, he was forced to eliminate positions.

The 42 eliminated positions from the Board of Education alone will save the city an estimated $1.8 million annually, Christopher Hoffman, the New Haven Public Schools director of communications, wrote in a press release.

Still, several union representatives told the News that the mayor should have sought to eliminate the budget gap from sources other than labor.

“I think it’s time for the mayor to go,” said Kevin Murphy, the director of collective bargaining and organizing for Council 4 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “He’s not sharing. He keeps his own pension while cutting others’.”

Murphy applauded the mayor of admitting that he created the budget problems, but admonished him for refusing to bargain with the unions. He said that the mayor left the table during a collective bargaining meeting on Saturday before any problems could be solved.

NHPD Union President Sgt. Lou Cavaliere also criticized the mayor’s bargaining techniques. He said the mayor suggested to substantively alter the police pension program during the next two weeks in exchange for the possibility of the 16 officers getting their jobs back. Cavaliere called this tactic “a brazen slap in the face.”

But some New Haven residents are behind the mayor’s attempts at closing the budget gap.

Jeffrey Kerekes, the founder of sustainable city budget advocacy organization New Haven Citizens Action Network, told the News that the biggest costs to the city are from employment, and he approves of the cuts.

Still, Kerekes said, he would have preferred if the mayor had addressed the budget problems before he had to resort to drastic measures.

“[The mayor] is doing what he has to do at this point,” Kerekes said. “But I would have supported them being a little more proactive.”

DeStefano will submit his budget to the Board of Aldermen on March 1.

Daniel Sisgoreo contributed reporting.

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