WILKES-BARRE – The announcement Thursday that 11 city firefighters will be laid off is the first cost-cutting measure since Mayor Thomas Leighton revealed the city’s financial crisis six weeks ago.
“Other layoffs will be announced in the very near future,” said Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator for the city.
The layoff, effective Saturday, represents 17 percent of the department’s 64 firefighters.
It comes on the heels of Leighton’s public requests for unions to make pay and benefit concessions to balance the budget. None has been offered.
Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Leighton told him of his plan during a meeting Thursday at City Hall.
“We’re down to 53 people for the rest of the year,” Bilski said. “And these are all young guys who don’t have December vacations. I don’t know what we’re going to do to fill shifts.”
Asked if he was concerned about the safety of city residents, Bilski said, “Oh my God, yes. We can’t operate with just one engine on per shift.”
In a prepared statement, Leighton said the furloughs are required to ease fiscal pressure on the general fund budget through the end of the year. The city hassaid there is a $2 million revenue shortfall looming.
“These are tough financial times for the City of Wilkes-Barre,” the statement said. “Between the Centax crisis and the lagging economic recovery, we cannot continue to finance all government services and employee costs without cooperation from the city’s unions. Tax increases must be coupled with savings from the employee work force.”
Leighton said he does not believe public safety will be jeopardized by the furloughs. He said he has met with Fire Chief Jay Delaney to ensure a plan is in place for proper staffing.
The mayor said he hopes the furloughs will not be permanent and the city will closely monitor revenue collections into 2013 to identify a prudent time to return the employees to work.
“The two remaining variables in the city’s budget calculations are union concessions and the tax millage rate,” Leighton said. “They will have a significant impact upon whether the 11 firefighters will return to work as well as salvaging additional employee cuts in other unions.”
One solution to reduce a proposed 31 percent property tax hike, prevent further employee cuts and restore the furloughed employees, Leighton said, is for unions to make concessions. He has asked the unions to give up a scheduled 3 percent pay hike next year as well as some holidays.
Leighton and the firefighters have been at odds for years.
On his blog, Dan Emplit, a city firefighter, states 26 firefighters have retired since Leighton assumed office and five have been replaced.
Firefighters have expressed concern over the number of firefighters per shift, citing a study done years ago that recommended 17 per shift. That number was down to 11 before Thursday’s layoffs.
For his part, Bilski said, “We’re the only union that went to the meetings with the mayor and offered suggestions. We were willing to discuss concessions. Now we have barely enough to cover all shifts.”
Councilman Tony George issued a statement Thursday night stating he was very upset by the layoffs.
“Combined with the 5 retires the number grows to 16,” George wrote in an email. “I believe this creates a high risk of danger for our citizens. I have said before that public safety, should be our number one priority, and that I would not agree with any cuts let alone a quarter of the dept. There are other cuts that could have been made. Part-time employees should be laid off first.”
He also stated cuts should have been made across the board, not from one department.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, said he is beside himself over the layoffs.
“One engine per shift is not enough,” Sorick said.
In May 2010 one of Sorick’s buildings was damaged when a fire broke out three buildings from his rental property on Sullivan Street. That fire claimed the lives of two homeless men and destroyed three buildings. Sorick, who ran for mayor last year, said that before firefighters or other safety personnel are laid off, the mayor should look around City Hall to make cuts.
“Why aren’t we cutting some of the folks at City Hall who are not part of the public safety?” Sorick asked. “If it’s belt-tightening time, we need to get rid of the aides and the assistants to the assistants.”